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Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

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I'm an engineer, educator & innovator with 10+ software patents from my R&D past. Ask Me Anything!

I am NOT a patent attorney. I don't know patent law and litigation issues and have not kept up with much of the furor around software patents & regulations.

My patents all stem primarily from my 10+ years at Motorola Labs, the R&D (research & development) arm of Motorola. I ended my tenure there in 2012 as a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff and member of the Scientific Advisory Board (SABA). During that time, I served as a reviewer (subject matter expert) for multiple internal patent review committees, a champion (department-level mentor) to help first-time innovators navigate the process, and an innovator (author of patent disclosures with at least 1 issued patent).

Since I left Motorola, I have worked as an independent consultant and systems architect for multiple early-stage startups. In at least one case, I helped them identify critical IP that helped protect their idea in a competitive market, and was key to their securing funding and a buyout later.

I am also currently an industry advisor and mentor to students at SUNY New Paltz, where we are exploring ideas bridging IoT and the Share Economy. Again, I find cases where the research & development work done on these early-stage concepts could benefit from IP protection, if only to give projects the time and resources needed to take them further.

I am happy to talk about what the process is (from the innovator's perspective) and how strategies that were useful to me in identifying the core invention. There are some things that I cannot talk about, and some things that I am not qualified to talk about.

That said, I do wear multiple hats - I manage the Google Developer Group NYC (tech meetup), run training events (Study Camps), organize dev conferences (DevFestNYC) and am passionate about education and workforce retraining.

Ask me anything!

Top comments (49)

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

What a great question!! I wish I could write an essay on this or spent all my time here!!

  1. DIVERSIFY & READ. Turns out that when you read about various disciplines (outside your core competency) you get this amazing ability to start making connections you hadn't made before. One of my favorite ideas related to social search for TV - where we had been exploring ideas for what we could do on the blank (idle) real estate on the TV when you pause it. And then we asked "why do people pause it in the first place" - and the conversations with folks in design/UX helped identify that one aspect was to get a closer look at something on screen - and that led to a discussion on "how do we find out what that is" and then "how do we get the answer".. and so on. Today we would say "computer vision" - but at that time we got to a solution that combined image-capture with social crowdsourcing
    You can see some of it here (slideshare.net/nitya/the-evolution...)

  2. TALK TO PASSIONATE PEOPLE. Don't listen for success stories. Listen for the failures. Listen for the irritations and frustrations and damn-i-wish-i-had-x moments that these conversations bring up. That's where innovation lies. If you look at the share economy - no one saw that as disruptive. It took someone to be the first to say "everyone has X and isn't using it - what would it take for me to get X on-demand"?

  3. Attend/View academic conferences. In particular hugely recommend ACM CHI (Human Factors conference) - at the end of the day most meaningful innovation comes from a desire to make humans lives better.

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

DIVERSIFY & READ. Turns out that when you read about various disciplines (outside your core competency) you get this amazing ability to start making connections you hadn't made before.

Yes yes yes to this one. It is amazing how many good ideas there are outside your core focus. It's also a great way to break up the monotony of what your day-to-day focus is without getting too scattered. I do this so much and I feel like it's sort of my secret weapon.

I also like historical accounts of technology, like The Victorian Internet, which give you a lot of context into what it takes for invention to take place fundamentally. If something is true in 2017 and also seems like it was essentially true in 1917 and 1417, it's probably fundamentally true and not a fad.

Also: If you have a hard time finding time for books, audiobooks can really fit well into your life. 🙂

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juanita profile image
Juanita Soranno

How have you found ways to balance your "day" job with the work you do for GDG? I want to be more involved in tech education outside of work, but find myself worried about burning out.

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

What a great question!!

So the honest answer is: NO! I haven't found the "best" way to balance work with community / evangelism work, and YES! burnout is real.

That said, I am now in a better place about how I think about this and make choices - it's a WIP but the biggest positive step for me was this year, when I started trying to clearly articulate three things:

  1. Motivation - WHY am I doing this? e.g., what is my goal? and what are the checkpoints or milestones that help me measure my progress?

  2. Incentive - WHAT am I getting from it? e.g., if this is for altruism, my incentive should be a sense of fulfillment; if it is for professional growth, my incentive should be a growth in network or influence; if it is for monetary gain, then beware! There is a delicate balance between making something sustainable (meet costs) and making it profitable (business) - and I recommend reading this article (whistlinginthewind.org/2013/01/15/...) by one of my favorite people (Dan Ariely) on why moving from social obligations to money-minded ones can be a one-way street.

  3. Opportunity Cost - What am I LOSING by doing this? e.g., what else could I be doing with the time/resources I am spending on this, which would meet the same goals as 1? and what else do I actually need time for (e.g., family) that I am sacrificing for this.

Burnout happens when your dis-incentive to do something outweighs your motivation to do it. And more often than not, burnout is a mental wellness issue. It's about emotional labor, decision fatigue and excessive stress. I was lucky I saw the signs earlier this year and took a step back to work on myself. Here is my current strategy.

  1. Break my day into 5-9am / 9am-5pm / 5-9pm / 9pm-5am.

  2. The 9am-5pm is for professional growth. I dedicate time to tasks that help me grow my professional network, execute on my client obligations, explore new career venues. As a remote worker & consultant, GDG and public speaking contribute to this segment by giving me resources to learn new things & connect with people who then recruit me for various projects. Whatever I do here, I need to justify how it helps my career.

  3. 5am-9am is for self-care and family. I focus on quiet time, getting ready for the day, making healthy foods, gym & sometimes sketching (my version of meditation).

  4. 9pm-5am is for sleep. I never make it just right - mostly I end up sleeping later and waking up later, but I keep trying. It's the most critical thing I need to work on. Often times when tasks in other blocks run over, I sacrifice sleep (stay up till 1am, wake up at 5am) and that is unsustainable.

  5. 5pm-9pm is my only "flex time" - everything else I do needs to fit into this. This include mom-gineer duties and emotional labor. I play this by ear.

Splitting the day into these time zones helps me quantify time spent. I say NO more often. I ignore more emails/alerts, stay off social media more and try to reduce other distractions during the day.

I've also found that the altruistic work has paid dividends in other ways - speaking opportunities, requests to build courses (for profit), consulting gigs (and offers for full-time), entrepreneurial opportunities (starting an apps lab) etc.

The key is to weigh those three: motivation, incentive & opportunity cost - and take a decision that prioritizes YOU.

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davidhaile profile image
David Haile

I agree with your implication that having a tech hobby can lead to burnout. In my experience, I have 4-6 hours of intense development work in me per day (occasionally 12-18 hours). If I get up early and work on a hobby project then arrive at work at for a regular day, my productivity period ends far earlier than if I didn't work on the hobby first. I've started considering what is scheduled for the day before diving into a hobby project. If it is nothing but meetings, I can easily afford the hobby time.

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legovski profile image
Оној со брадата

How are you certain that your code is patent material? When do you decide to patent your work?

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

As an inventor in a large company, that issue was perhaps easier to manage for me at the time. I think it is a tougher question to ask of small startups.

In large companies, there is usually a number of folks in the process pipeline to help guide the decision. Some factors that are valuable:

  1. Is the idea related to a specific product or portfolio - this is usually for the business value part of things. Patents cost money/time so it has to be worth putting the time/resources into it.

  2. Do you have meaningful results and work to back up the invention - this is the "no vaporware" filter. In general most of the things I patented were tied to research projects we worked on, in which there was a functional implementation as well as peer-reviewed conference publications that helped validate the ideas.

  3. Is this invention narrow or broad - this is the "can people work around it" filter. Narrow inventions are usually less valuable since they allow others to get nearly-good-enough results by simply going around that narrow claim. Broad inventions are more valuable but harder to defend if they are TOO broad. Knowing the right balance takes experience.

  4. Are there other approaches (related work) and is it detectable (can I tell if someone uses it).

In general I found patents and research publications were similar in their ability to separate good ideas from great ones. A good idea is one that solves a problem but you can easily come up with other ways to approach it if you give it some thought. A great idea is one that has had substantial thought (exploring all issues and finding solutions to them) which makes it harder to replicate.

Most companies have reviewers, committees and subject matter experts to help simplify the process.

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sheyd profile image
Sena Heydari

How do you balance the need for making sure you recoup the R&D costs that went into a patent vs fostering adoption and further innovation on ideas? What tools do you think work best for this coherently? Aggressive patent expire dates?

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

This is a great question!!! I don't have good answers but I have a ton of opinions :-)

I struggled with this myself because of the constant tension between the "good" side of patents (protecting those who have invested time/money into meaningful innovation - and giving them room to improve it while recouping costs) -- and the "bad" side of patents (becoming a club to bludgeon smaller startups that could move quickly to get ahead in the innovation game).

I think the patent system is flawed if not broken because

(a) choosing what/when to patent is increasingly a numbers/advantage game rather than about those goals above
(b) the examiners who actually make the decision to issue the patent (i.e., until it is "issued" it really is just paper in a pipeline) are overburdened with applications and potentially under-staffed in resources. Think about it. There are millions of innovators filing things, each of whom have had dedicated time to put into research/identification. But examiners need to have all these connections in their head to determine if that idea is in fact new & viable etc. - and as tech grows, it becomes harder to know everything and easier to make mistakes.

So in that sense, folks with resources (money, time) to pursue these get an advantage.

My hope is that the following happens:

  1. Aggressive machine learning approaches to speed up the patent grant/no-grant process (reduce examiner burden & errors)
  2. Contextually relevant patent expiry dates - can't be a one-size fits all. Some technologies move faster than others - getting a sense of how many research hours it takes to get solutions should be an indicator of how long that patent has value.
  3. Tiered patents (like various kinds of licenses) - where seeking a specific type of patent should give you a certain tradeoff between coverage, cost and duration.

There is room for rethinking this.
(I had something else I wanted to say but darn it I forgot)

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darjun0812 profile image
darjun0812

Hi Nitya!

From an educator's perspective - how do you encourage creative confidence in a first time innovator?

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

Another great question!!!

Based on my experience I would say this (and this is assuming you are an innovator working in a company that has some team/resources -- and not an individual)

  1. Participate in Ideation Sessions.
    These are often unconference-like sessions where people try to think about new ideas or projects that they want to do. It's not about invention but really about coming up with new problems/ideas. Try to have diverse people in these sessions (folks from data sciences, UX/UI, systems, front-end, devops ...) and just feed ideas off each other and build on them. This helps get you into that mode of understanding how different pieces fit, and potentially gets you collaborating on projects (or with people) you would not have envisioned otherwise. The 20% project idea is a great example.

  2. Be a co-author on the first disclosure.
    Work with someone else who has done this before so you can learn from them. If you did (1) then chances are that when the time comes to patent something there, that you have a number of contributors. Know what your contribution is - but let someone else take the lead in the writeup and ask how you can help. There are many parts to writing and learning to do them all takes time.

  3. Volunteer. Volunteer. Volunteer.
    Many companies have dedicated patent committees with senior folks and lots of backlogs. They usually need volunteers to do a ton of spadework (e.g., find relevant art for this idea) - ask if you can help. If others senior innovators are doing a "scrub" (session where a project is explored for IP) ask if you can sit in and listen and take notes for them. Be present.

After a few cycles not only will you be a better thinker, but you will start seeing the patterns and people that can help boost your understanding.

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darjun0812 profile image
darjun0812

Thank you, Nitya! These are great suggestions. I especially love the idea of being a co-author, allowing yourself to have a guiding hand makes so much sense when traversing anything for the first time!

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jess profile image
Jess Lee

What were some common mistakes you saw with first-time innovators?

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

I think there are two key issues that I found were the hardest.

1.
Inventors are justifiably proud of how they solved the problem. And so many disclosures (= writeup of the invention that goes for internal review) would focus on "How I solved problem A with solution B". However the focus of patents is actually exclusion. In other words -- what about your solution is critical to PREVENTING someone from replicating it. So brevity and focus are key. If you write about the 10 things that you did but only 2 of them were the core "obstacles" -- then you are diluting the value of your patent. Knowing what to pick to protect is hard!

2.
The value of inventions also lies in detectability. If a competitor were to use my invention (e.g., I patented it to protect it, then shared my insights/process in a conference where my competitor learnt how I did it) -- but that usage is not VISIBLE to the external world, then there is no way to enforce the patent clause. This was particularly important when we had ideas related to embedded systems or communications protocols that added efficiencies which were not necessarily easy to detect/measure by a common user.

This is where the champion value came into play. Getting past inventors to mentor first-time innovators was useful.

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jess profile image
Jess Lee

How long is the typical patent process?

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

It depends.

There is the internal process (from ideation to write-up, review and filing) and the external process (patent office review, examiner actions, final issue)

The internal process is based on the urgency (disclosure before public conference talk or tradeshow event vs. invention session) and the committees involved. Typically we had committees that met monthly and reviewed all submissions that were available by then. And amongst those, we prioritized for immediate relevance, inventor/reviewer availability etc. Anything from a month to a year..

The external process is not under our control (or at least that's how I felt). If your disclosure was found to have value and filed, then it could be anywhere from a few months to 10+ years before you saw the results :-) My fastest external turnaround was just a few months. The slowest was 7 years. And I still have a few in the pipeline that could potentially clear out any day and move that needle

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ericjkatz profile image
Eric Katz

What does the patent review process look like and how many people are involved? Are there any best practices you recommend for innovators going through the process for the first time?

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

In my experience:

The patent review process was 3 steps:

  1. Innovators write up their idea using a template provided by the patent committee (PC) - this asks the key questions about idea, business value, novelty, related work etc. This is then entered into the system and queued up for the review process. Typically in order to do this, you need to have approval from your manager (because reviewing/filing costs money so prioritization is key) and need to have it witnessed by folks (to ensure that this was in fact YOUR invention)

  2. The committee schedules it for review and allocates a subject matter expert to review it with the innovators. There is usually 1 tech reviewer (for idea novelty) and 1 business reviewer (for ideal value). They both meet with inventors and have a discussion at which time they enter their ratings (privately) into the system for the PC to see.

    1. The PC meets and actually reviews all the drafts on their schedule. Innovators do a quick 2-minute review and PC members can ask for additional details etc. but then innovators leave. At that point, the reviewers provide feedback and everyone discusses/votes on it.

The most important thing is to have that talk with the reviewer and be as candid as possible. They are your voice in the PC meeting (after you leave) so you really want to have the longest conversation you can with them. If you are a first-time innovator ask your PC which inventions are on the docket for an upcoming schedule - then reach out to one of those scheduled and ask if you can sit in on the inventor/reviewer meeting. You will learn a lot by just understanding how they approach the issue.

Second thing is to recognize that very few of your ideas will actually make it past the PC and that's okay. It's not that they aren't good or novel. It's the fact that they may not be a priority for the current product, or that their business value is unclear or ... or .. or.

Bottom line is that at least for me innovating was not about the IP but about the process of finding a problem and solving it with some out-of-the-box thinking, then writing it up in a way that articulated value to a broader class of problems. So keep writing them and you get better each time - and at the very least it influences the way you approach architecture later.

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andy profile image
Andy Zhao (he/him)

I became a big fan of Motorola's phone hardware after Google bought Motorola. Not sure if you were still working with Motorola when Google came in, but did you see a big shift in culture/thinking after a merge/acquistion?

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

Personal opinion only!!!

Yes I was there when the acquisition happened. And we were a wholly-owned subsidiary so we were not considered Googlers - we were still Motorolans (and btw, I am hugely proud of being an ex-Motorolan. They had incredible innovation & amazing people in that company and they changed my way of thinking forever)

I had been there a decade and a lot of folks I worked with had been there too - so I didn't see a shift in culture. However as a research lab, we did have a little more emphasis on IP given that (and this is reflected in blogs everywhere) the Motorola patent portfolio was a key asset for that deal. That said, I think the bigger shift was the explosion in software innovation and platforms that happened, which made a lot more players competitive in the mobile hardware market.

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maestromac profile image
Mac Siri

Is there a big difference between hardware and software development?

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

Yes!!

IMO hardware takes more dollars/time/resources to develop - and is easier to detect infringements on. Also hardware refreshes (new generations) take time so the IP protection makes sense and has value.

Software development is getting faster every day with more choices, more competition and constant evolution. The risk that something you work on gets obsoleted by your tech choices is real.

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maestromac profile image
Mac Siri

I never thought about it that way 😥. Thank you for answering!

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ardennl profile image
Arden de Raaij

Hi Nitya! Have you ever been afraid that some of the things you worked on would be used for something that you'd morally object to?

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

Yes.

I was lucky that most of my work was in the mobile/television space and focused on core applications that weren't "life-critical".

That said -- there is always the fear in anything you do (public speaking, writing, development - not just innovation) that your output could be used for things you personally don't hold with, or that they could be misconstrued.

And especially this year I've come to the realization that you can't control everything. And constantly worrying about things creates its own version of emotional labor and decision fatigue that does no good. Instead the only thing you can do is clarify and mitigate. Be clear about what YOU stand for. Be clear about WHY you did something. And if things changed then do what is in your power to do, to mitigate the damage. And that's all.

If you work for a company, sometimes you do things because that's your job - and without questioning the why/where of the endgame. You make choices. Just make sure you assess those choices well.

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ardennl profile image
Arden de Raaij

Fantastic and valuable answer. Thank you very much.

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pranavsinghal profile image
Pranav Singhal

Do I need to worry about patents if I am planning on starting my own website?

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

Honestly? I wouldn't!

  1. Patents take time and money. A lot of time. A lot of money. Unless the return on investment is worthwhile, it is better to spend your time/money focusing on differentiating your product via a better UX, customer engagement and feature additions.

  2. If you have spent X years and Y dollars on doing the spadework to improve an idea - and now want to create a startup from it, it might be worth exploring if there is IP there but there are other things to check.

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pranavsinghal profile image
Pranav Singhal

Thanks for replying

You saved me a lot of headache!!

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

How has the software industry changed since your time at Motorola Labs? How would a similar type of operation conduct itself differently today?

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

I think there have been two big changes (and some of this is a personal opinion).

1.

I think it is harder to think about software patents as valuable or even viable these days because the technology stacks keep changing at such a rapid pace. One of the reasons I truly treasure and love my R&D past is that we were just entering the mobile revolution and ubiquitous computing & social networking were huge disruptors but also opportunities to innovate. We could ask hard questions (e.g., How can I make ad hoc networking apps without depleting the battery) and have the time/resources to focus on finding the right solutions. Today, the pace is harder and patience shorter from investors. We see companies cutting corners and making unethical decisions in the name of valuation - without actually thinking about how it advances the broader technology discourse. I miss the humanity behind engineering and the people who genuinely thought of innovation as a way to make something better (not someone richer)

2.

I think the focus today is going to be on Artificial Intelligence. I am excited but also puzzled by what "invention" will mean when the "learning" is all by machines. Do they see nuances of behavior? So a huge asset for any inventor is not necessarily learning how to solve the problem for the FIRST time, but realizing that the problem may have been solved in a DIFFERENT domain and then finding a way to translate the context and the solutions to the current need. This to me was the most important (and most fulfilling) part of research - finding and making connections that matter. But when we come to AI, its learning is driven by the examples we provide. Are we providing enough diversity for it to make these connections across disciplines? I don't know. I think that anyone looking to write up a software patent today needs to ask "how does this method or system change if the interfaces between the components change?" -- needs us to start thinking in a new way about what invention means.

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Which Google services/APIs are most interesting to you right now?

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nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

This one is easy.

I started my tech career as an applications engineer out of college (unit testing FTW)
Then did a PhD in distributed systems and focused on enterprise.
Then worked in mobile/television computing at Motorola and focused on consumer.

But its only in the past 4+ years that I've started exploring more of the web and data sciences side.
And thanks to the GDG hat I wear I get to explore a really wide variety of things. It keeps changing but the top 3 are:

  1. Firebase = for work + fun. Primarily because it short-circuits the time I need to go from idea to prototype to deployed app, and I can outsource front-end stuff to different people with diverse backgrounds, and it still works.

  2. Machine Learning = not a google-specific thing though I am working my way through TensorFlow and CloudML. However I do favor Google tech here primarily because when it comes to ML, having the right DATA is key - and there are very few companies that can learn/evolve at this scale. Using their products lets me get to a really good v1 really quickly, and then finesse to my needs.

  3. Progressive Web Apps = I have worked with mobile for years but have become a fan of open web. And while there are wars to be fought, I like the core PWA vision of enabling web apps that can compete with native experiences by virtue of focusing on needs like offline-first, real-time notifications & fast loads/renders. Also a fan of web components but that's a longer story.

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jess profile image
Jess Lee

What are some things you'd like to see in regards to workforce retraining?

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