Pizza with a CTO — NUMA x Ideaphora

Ideaphora enables students to take notes and organize material, connect ideas, analyze information, and apply their knowledge — all in one screen. By building and sharing knowledge maps, students develop higher order thinking skills, critical for college and career readiness, while teachers are able to visualize their students’ learning.

  • Founders: Anil Arvindam, Mark Oronzio
  • Founded: 2013, incorporated in the US
  • City: Portland (Oregon, USA)/ Bengaluru (India)
  • Funding: 40k$ seed from angels + undisclosed investment from Brainpop
  • Company size at time of writing: 5 + part timers
  • Tech team: 1 CTO, 2 Java software developers, 1 JS/Web designer. Looking for JS developers.

What’s on your Biryani ?

Paneer Makhani Biryani — This CTO Pizza took place in Bengaluru, India. In our concern of staying local, we grabbed some Biryanis instead.

Anil Arvindam, CTO Ideaphora Inc.

Let’s talk about you

I pitched him the idea, and Mark entered as a co-founder in 2013. We still hadn’t met yet, everything was done over Skype.

What’s your background?

Before Ideaphora I co-founded an education assessment startup (Edcite), where I wrote code and set up the dev team. Before that and for several years, I did a mix of technical consulting and being an entrepreneur in residence, since 2002. I first moved to Bengaluru to work for a chip company around that time, and before that I worked in the Bay area for Pacific Broadband Networks.

Beforehand, I worked for about 10 years in Tampa (Florida) for Home Shopping Network, because my background was in digital video, with a low level chip design CS degree. I was part of the team that made HSN go from an analog to a digital signal.

How did Ideaphora start?

When I was an entrepreneur in residence, I worked on a digital video startup to extract highlights of sports events automatically (we were mostly focusing on cricket games). But we ended up being unable to raise any funding and I started looking at educational videos.

When watching videos, one wants to take notes and always have to go back and forth between the screen and your notes — you might end up losing information in the process. Then when you go back to your notes, you can have a hard time finding again the time in the video they belong to. That’s where the idea of Ideaphora came from, as we didn’t find any pre-built solution. So we came up with the idea of applying concept maps next to videos to take notes in a visual and spatial way, which our brains remember more easily.

In 2009, I started researching a viable business model for the idea and put together a business plan. But concept maps are still an alien concept to the majority of the population. In 2013, I spun off from Edcite to start Ideaphora full time. I spoke to a friend who knew some people interested in investing, and he knew somebody who had a background in concept mapping and edtech: Mark! I pitched him the idea, and he entered as a co-founder in 2013. We still hadn’t met yet, everything was done over Skype.

Brainpop was really interested in the project and funded the first product, so we were able to grow the team up to 7 people.

In a few words, what is you job now?

I focus on getting the next round of funding and sign-up contracting partners. I’d like to be more focused on tech yet, but there’s no time for it and I trust my lead developer to do the job. Mark is doing the same thing in the US, basically, while I’m doing it here in Bengaluru.

Has it changed since you started?

At the beginning, it was all code and architecture design. The first 2 years were about pure technology, as we were building the app for Brainpop. We then started to work on our own application (we own the IP) with its own set of unique features.

The last 6 months have clearly been focused on fundraising and pitch decks.

 

 

The stack of an EdTech company

 

When you tell developers in 2017 that they’ll work on core Javascript, they are not always qualified

What’s your stack and why this choice?

The front-end is pure Javascript, with Fabric as a drawing/canvas library. For the rest it’s pretty simple Jquery/Bootstrap code.

The Backend is a bit more complex, with Java Spring and a semantic engine to analyze educational content — PDF documents, speech transcripts etc. We basically extract text and images, and run them through a machine learning/natural language processing engine to extract key phrases that are presented to the user in synchronization with content.

We store all that in a Cassandra database, as most of our data is represented as big JSON objects. Cassandra was chosen because it handles big chunks of data, with fast writes and a free licence.

Have you changed anything in your stack yet? Why?

We want to move to a front-end framework because it’s easier to hire people. When you tell developers in 2017 that they’ll work on core Javascript, they are not always qualified since they are used to having a framework do the heavy lifting for them.

We’ll also implement a UI framework like Kendo UI or similar, along with a charting framework. The mobile app is also soon going to be a consideration — for now, we’re using PhoneGap.

Have you ever faced a crisis? How did you solve it?

We had a database crash after we mistakenly removed some tables in production. We had strong backups so we were able to put everything back up in less than 24h.

The incident happened on a Friday night, so we were back up and running on Monday morning, without any customer noticing!

 

Your CTO life

In India, nobody teaches children how to learn. That’s a gap we‘re here to fill.

What’s your hardest challenge at this time?

Getting the next funding round! We’ve been talking to a few potential customers about the long-term value of what we’re trying to achieve, but it’s a very long process and we need to stay alive during that time. A few investors see the concept as a vitamin, as a note-taking solution. But we are more than that — we are teaching children how to learn effectively so they can understand better rather than just remember well. Nobody in India is doing this with technology that spans all subjects.

But our main issue right now is to get our customer validation in India. Once we do, it’s going to be easy to go back to investors.

Your biggest responsibility?

Same thing — Making sure we have enough money to keep going. Then, making sure we stay one step ahead of the customers’ needs. There’s a great tech lead who is also our product lead, so I can stay focused on the architecture and fundraising.

Would you change anything you did since the beginning?

When we launched, we directly made it a premium app, which you had to pay for to use. We should just have made it a freemium from the start, and we’re only making the switch now, and working on a compelling business model.

Investors like having a lot of users, so we need to raise our user base before going for premium features.

 

The people at Ideaphora

Can you describe your tech team in a few words?

Our head of software has 15+ years of experience in Java development, and is pretty much strong in everything. I found him on HasGeek while he was consulting for a few other startups. The other back-end engineer has 4 years of experience, and the front-end has 2.

Anything specific you are looking for when hiring?

The ideal is somebody who wants to work because they dig the project. I want to see some sort of passion about changing the education system, and a willingness to work hard and learn new things.

There are lots of people that are only searching for a salary, and stock options are not particularly enticing to these folks. They’d rather work for a big corporation and build a resume on brand value rather than cutting edge technology and work.

It’s slowly changing because a lot of people got laid off from big corporations and turn to startups for a more exciting adventure.

 

Let’s talk about the future

Where will Ideaphora be in 2 years?

If all goes well, my dream for India is that millions of kids will be able to learn on our app, directly from home. We will make Ideaphora a core part of learning in India.

The biggest challenges you’ll face to reach this point?

We would like to work with the government, which is hard unless you have the right contacts. We’re also hoping to work with special needs schools (i.e. for hearing impaired people, children with cerebral palsy and autism)

Our biggest issue is that most people don’t know what concept maps are. So we first need to teach them about that before they can understand how powerful our product can be.


 

Article written by Alban Dumouilla and originally published on CTO.Pizza

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Pizza with a CTO — NUMA x OpenClassrooms

Every week, Alban Dumouilla, NUMA’s CTO, will have a Pizza with a CTO from different stages companies to talk with them about their roles, constraints, management issues… Let’s get started for this first article, we are hungry.

OpenClassrooms is an online learning platform for vocational training, providing courses in IT, technology, entrepreneurship, and digital skills at large, in English, French, and Spanish.

  • Founded: 1999 by Mathieu Nebra & Pierre Dubuc as le Site du zéro
  • City: Paris, France
  • Funding: 8.5M€
  • Company size at time of writing: 60
  • Tech team composition: 14 in the team(back, front, integration, QA, UX)

What’s on your pizza?

Tradimento: Tomatoes / Mozzarella fior di latte / Prosciutto cotto / Egg at ZAZZA, 18 Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, 75010 Paris

 

Romain Kuzniak, CTO at OpenClassrooms

You and the CTO job

“The time I can spend coding is a good indicator of the efficiency of our workflows.”

Tell me a bit about your background

I’m originally a sound engineer. I worked for different recording labels and studios for about 4 years, but music is a bit too random when it comes to money. I got into coding by building a website for my band and finally studied programming at Paris 5 University.
I then worked for a few tech services companies on a lot of interesting projects, some of them really big, that made me level up in professionalism. After 2 1/2 years of it, I headed to a hiring firm and found OpenClassrooms that were searching for developers.

How did you join OpenClassrooms?

I had a Java background and the site was already in PHP, so the match wasn’t an obvious one. But at the first interview, I surprised myself imagining the future of the product, new features, what could be possible, etc. Things were starting pretty well, and I got hired.
I joined a team of already about 10 to 12 people, as a developer. I started taking the lead on quite a few things, as I was more experienced and was the first one in the team with a significant professional experience.
I then slowly migrated towards the CTO role, organically.

What do you consider your current job to be?

I’m mostly a facilitator for tech and product — I try to help everybody to work in the best conditions, find talent, get the best tools for the job, use the best workflows, etc.
The rest of the job is about project management, decision making with the founders and still quite a bit of programming (30 to 50% of my time). The time I can spend coding is a good indicator of the efficiency of our workflows. More time to code means that everything else went faster.

Has anything changed for you since you started?

The job changes every 3 months, because the company changes every 3 months. There’s no way to get bored while working at OpenClassrooms as it’s constantly evolving.
An example is when we decided to onboard quality mentors on the platform. Managing a community of dedicated mentors is a bigger deal than adding a few options on the site: it completely changed the organization and the thought process around the new vision.
I’ve also been trying to give more and more autonomy to the developers in the team. I used to keep an eye on everything, but I learnt to delegate.
I’m more of an experts’ manager than anything else now, I guess.

 

Let’s talk about tech

“It took us 6 months to restore all the functionalities of the site after breaking everything during the migration to v4.”

 

What’s your stack and why?

Symfony and everything that goes with it, on AWS. We go through a different company that manages our servers because we don’t consider devops being part of our core value. We used to manage everything, but it wasn’t the best use of our time.
On the front-end, we use React, with some parts of Jquery/JqueryUI still around. We’re currently building our mobile app in SWIFT, and we are closely looking at Progressive Web Apps for the future.
We can’t really switch technologies to follow the trends, we need robust ones because of the 3 million UVs on the site.

Have you ever had to change your stack?

Nothing huge. I joined when the site was already at its third version and at the very beginning it was a homemade framework. I migrated to Symfony 1, then Symfony 2 and React.

Have you ever faced a crisis?

Yes, and a huge one. A month after I joined, we released the v4 of the site, that wasn’t well tested enough. Everything worked well on our dev machines, but shit hit the fan when we went live because of the traffic.
We had to shutdown functionalities of the site that we reopened slowly — forums reopened first in readonly mode — over 6 months.
Since then, we got a lot more professional. We thoroughly test everything, and iterate a lot with small deploys. We can deploy up to 50 times a day, so nothing can really break the entire site.

 

The CTO life

“We’re were we are now because we failed when we needed to”

What is your main responsibility as a CTO?

Everything needs to work, always. I’m responsible for the product experience in general, that I manage with the founders.
One of my biggest responsibilities is to know when to say no and find the minimal iterations to reach a specific spot where we want to be. For example when we started onboarding the mentors, at the beginning everything was done through emails and Google Hangouts. When we validated that it worked, we actually built the feature.

Anything you would want to change in what you did in the past?

Nothing. We have a fail fast take decisions fast mindset. We are where we are now because of this attitude, because we failed when we needed to, and we learnt.
Learning from your failures is in our DNA, as long as the failures stay reasonable!

The people at OpenClassrooms

“I’m not telling them enough, but they are amazing people.”

Describe your tech team in a few words

Kindness is the first word that comes up to mind. And they are good, like, really good. I have complete trust in every single one of them.
What really spots me the most at OpenClassrooms is that we work on a product that makes sense, that helps real people. But building this is being part of a full human experience with the team. There were and will be hard moments, but everybody pushes each other to the top.
I’m not telling them enough, but they are amazing people.

Any hiring tip?

I pretty much know after a few minutes if I’m going to extend an offer or not. An informal discussion is everything it takes to know the attitude of somebody.
I end up asking very specific tech questions during an interview, in the hope that the candidate won’t be able to answer. I then measure how they react about not knowing. Are they going to try to bullshit me? Or just let go and say they don’t know? Or try to work with me to get more details?
If you’re going to work every day with somebody, you might as well want to be able to trust them fully.
The last thing I’m looking at is rigor. I’ve learnt from my experiences that it’s not something you can teach to somebody. They either have it or not. So I prefer to figure if they do beforehand.

 

Article written by Alban Dumouilla and originally published on CTO.Pizza

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Pizza with a CTO — NUMA x Doctolib

Every week, Alban Dumouilla, NUMA’s CTO, will have a Pizza with a CTO from different stages companies to talk with them about their roles, constraints, management issues… Let’s get started for this article with Nicolas De Nayer , VP of Engineering at doctolib !

Doctolib is an online and mobile booking platform that helps to find and a specialist doctor nearby and make an appointment.
Founded: 2013 by Thomas Landais, Ivan Schneider, Steve Abou Rjeily, Jessy Bernal, Franck TETZLAFF, Stanislas Niox-Chateau

  • City: Paris, France
  • Funding: 54.3M€
  • Company size at time of writing: 304
  • Tech team: 40 (from 5 a year ago)

What’s on your pizza ?

Eggplants, potatoes, tomatoes, gorgonzola at a small shop near Parc Monceau

 

 

You and the VP of Engineering Job

“I like to compare myself to the motor oil in a running engine”

Where do you come from ?

I come from an engineering school, then worked at OCTO Technology for some time as an architect, agile coach and tech lead. I’m a tech guy first, but I work on methodologies quite a lot.
I then moved to San Francisco to work for Viadeo for a bit more than 2 years to see something else than consulting, before coming back to France and starting at Doctolib.

How did you join Doctolib?

Doctolib was already about 100 people when I joined, mostly non-tech. We had 2 front-end freelancers and a back-end intern, and Ivan and Jessy (note: the founders) were working on the entire stack.

These two are ridiculously good and efficient and they tried quite a few times to grow the team but it didn’t work too well. It’s like catching a bullet train at full speed, you needed to get on board and deal with it, which doesn’t really work for everybody.
They knew they had difficulties when it came to onboarding and they needed a VP of Engineering to take care of the team’s integration. That’s where I came into play. My goals were to scale the tech team, hire fast and right, build feature teams that would become autonomous.
There’s a lot of methodologies and responsibilities that I needed to move around, as at the time only the founders were pushing to prod. That didn’t scale. At all.

So what’s your job, exactly?

I like to compare myself to the motor oil in a running engine. Real tech people can get trapped in their tech stuff, and forget to communicate — which is absolutely vital for a team to function.
We don’t want tech rockstars that don’t chose their fights and just play around with technology without thinking about the impact.
So that’s my job : I need to know enough about the stack to dive in when necessary, but I mostly see everything from a higher point of view to make sure everybody works at their best and is happy about the job.

Has your job changed since you started ? How ?

A lot. Really a lot. At the beginning it was mostly about showing by example: I would work with the team and show how things should be done, and it was great. We spent 4 months on continuous integration, 4 months on product processes, 4 months on interfacing needs, etc.
Then it became pure management — the type that makes a person grow in their job. Really time consuming, and really necessary. It was doable because of the limited number of people in the team.
When we started growing the tech team, I had to find relays that would do this job in their smaller teams, and that was quite a challenge, because we wanted to keep a flat hierarchy.
My job is basically to take the great vision of the founders and help them share it to the rest of the company — by showing it to my team in a clear way.

 

Tech tech tech

“Tens of thousands of doctors and some hospitals use us, and if Doctolib is down they just can’t work”

What’s your stack ?

Rails, React, and RxJS with a bunch of custom code. We’re not hosted on AWS because we have legal needs that make us run on servers hosted in France, that are cleared to manipulate health data.
We chose this stack because the cofounders are ridiculously good at Rails. And it’s a pragmatic choice for the web.

Have you had to change it since you started?

We run a big monolithic app, on Rails and Postgres, and we used to run all the search on the full-text search capabilities of Postgres.
We made a big switch to Elasticsearch, because with the growing load, the production environment was becoming slower. The migration complexified our stack, which we didn’t like — you need new expertise — but was necessary.
We have a Postgres expert that will join the team soon — maybe we’ll be able to go back to full-text search in the database with the right performance.

Have you ever faced a crisis ? Site down or something ?

We run on small hosting providers, so they don’t have Amazon’s SLA. Some things can be down a bit from time to time.
Now that we’re getting big, it’s a real issue: tens of thousands of doctors and some hospitals use us, and if we’re down they just can’t work. So we’ve built a passive datacenter that replicates all the data and that can take over if the first one fails.
In theory, the failover should take a few minutes. Last time it happened, it took us longer that than to come back online — need to reheat the caches, reroute DNS, recreate VPN and IPSec tunnels, etc.
So there’s still some work to be done on that side!

 

The VP life

What’s the hardest thing in your job, right now?

Build a rockstar team, and define what we mean by “rockstar”. There’s a certain mindset that we’re searching for and that is not easy to find: we’re not here to make the web change, we’re here to use the web’s best practices to build the best product.
But when you hire the best tech people around, they can have a tendency of wanting to build the best technologies, and not necessarily the best product.

What is your most important responsibility?

Align all the devs on the vision of the founders. I came to Doctolib for the vision, and I knew I would be helpful at communicating it to others team members in an explicit manner.
So I need to keep that balance between having bright, very exigeant cofounders and not over-controlling everything. When you don’t control everything, some errors might slip in, and it’s OK. My job is to make sure these errors are as small as possible, and that is achieve by all being on the same page.

If you had to change something you did since you started?

Use more case studies to share the vision of the founders and their way to build products. Technology is an enabler and not an end by itself, and we are not taking enough time to show what that really means — with concrete examples.
So we’re being reactive when there’s a problem, and we should change that to being proactive.

 

The Doctolib people

“Never lower the bar. For somebody to join the team, they have to be better than somebody currently in the team.”

Describe your tech team

When you have good and bad devs in a team, productivity issues arise. The developers we have in the team belong to the top 1%, if not the top 1‰.
Our tech team is already brilliant, and can become magical if the product vision really settles in

What is the main thing you are looking for when hiring?

Pure tech level and pragmatism.
I used to spend 50% of my time interviewing during the first 6 months, to grade tech tests. Now we have somebody that takes care of tech HR.

A hiring tip?

Never lower the bar. For somebody to join the team, they have to be better than somebody currently in the team. I often ask the junior guys if they think the person they just interviewed is better than them.

 

You’ve talked a lot about vision

Where do you see the company in 2 years?

The tech team should be about 60 people, and fully autonomous. My goal is to become useless! When I talk about autonomy, I talk about product, performance, crisis management, security, architecture, etc.
We’ll also be the incontestable leader in Europe.

What are the biggest problems that you will face to get there?

Address all doctor’s specialties while keeping the product simple and intuitive. They all have specific needs, but we’ll have to find a way to stay focused.
Interconnecting with software packages that hospitals currently use is getting harder and harder as well, because the technologies might be old and very slow to move.
We’re already at our fourth version of the interconnection platform to keep simplifying it!

 

Jobs : https://www.doctolib.fr/jobs

Article written by Alban Dumouilla and originally published on CTO.Pizza

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Pizza with a CTO — NUMA x Drivy

Every week, Alban Dumouilla, NUMA’s CTO, will have a Pizza with a CTO from different stages companies to talk with them about their roles, constraints, management issues… Let’s get started for this article with Marc Gauthier, Director of Engineering at Drivy.com !

Drivy is a company which lets its users to rent one of of cars available in their area.

  • Founded: 2010 by Paulin Dementhon
  • City: Paris, France
  • Funding: 43.3M$
  • Company size at time of writing: 90
  • Tech team: 13 (CTO, 3 mobile developers, 1 data, 2 backend, the rest fullstack)

 

What’s on your pizza?

Tartufo: mozzarella, mushrooms and truffle oil at Pupetta

 

 

 

So, Director of Engineering?

We reorganized the team in squads following the Spotify model

Who are you?

I started coding early, and went to an engineering school. I then worked for big companies, which I didn’t like much. I moved to the US for about 2 years where I worked in startups and agencies, before coming back to Paris in 2009.

Since being back, I worked for 2 startups : the first one (Tigerlily) went down, and the second one is Drivy!

During my free time I help new teams launch or scale their startup. Depending on the period, I also give some classes at schools like HEC or HETIC, and I also have a Ruby class and a Git class on OpenClassRooms.

How did you join Drivy?

I saw that they worked with Rails and that they were creating an interesting project. The company was in the perfect stage for me: quite small, but already with a team, a nice looking product and people using it.

There was a good fit from the start, the product had a huge potential as it could have a real societal impact, changing the way people view car ownership. It was basically a great company, with enough funding to achieve their ambitions, so I was sold quickly and became the lead backend developer.

And now, what is your current job?

I still code a bit, a lot less than before (not much time). My role is to staff the team well, and make sure everybody works in the best conditions — for example we reorganized the team in squads following the Spotify model, and that worked out very well.

I also participate in all tech choices, working a lot with the product teams.

So I take it your job has changed since you started?

Of course, as I joined as a developer. I switched to director of engineering around August 2016. The CTO became CPO, as the team was too big to keep managing both at the same time!

 

Tech at Drivy

It used to be hard to manage TV appearances but we don’t even see them put pressure on the architecture anymore

What is your stack?

Mostly Ruby on Rails on the backend, and Yarn, Webpack and a lot of ES6 on the frontend. SWIFT/Java for the mobile part, and we are hosted on Heroku, with some database and redis parts being on Amazon.

We have an important data stack as well: R, Redshift, Redash, Airflow, Superset, etc.

Have you had to change it since it all started?

Drivy started without a tech founder, so the first few iterations were built by an agency in Symfony 1. They did quite a good job in the end, but migrating to Symfony 2 would have been as big of a migration as migrating to anything else.

So we decided to go for Ruby on Rails, which had an already interesting ecosystem. We after that added ES6, Webpack, etc to make things smoother in the front-end.

Have you ever faced a crisis?

We don’t have a lot of bugs in prod anymore, because we invest a lot in automated testing. It used to be hard to manage TV appearances (we tend to attract media attention), but now we don’t even see them put pressure on the architecture.

We tackled the problems bottleneck by bottleneck, and now the entire system is very robust.

 

The Director of Engineering life

Drivy is the sum of lessons learned sometimes through mistakes

What’s your hardest problem, right now?

Hiring the right people, which is the one thing that makes everything else simpler. The other challenge is to make sure that we scale the tech architecture correctly, as well as the team.

So we don’t have a real “problem”, we just have mandatory hard things to do.

What’s your most important responsibility?

Making sure everything works the way it should for the users, the team and the business.

Team onboarding is a huge thing as well: making sure it’s not too slow nor too fast. And also making sure the product ships at a good rythm without burning out the team.

Would you change anything you did?

There’s a lot of tiny details, tiny problems that we could have solved faster. But we’re a company that works with agility, and we’re always ready to switch direction.

Drivy works well now, but it’s the sum of lessons learned sometimes through mistakes. We wouldn’t be there without them, so no, I wouldn’t change anything.

 

The Drivy-ers?

Everybody cares to listen what the others have to say, and we don’t have a “know-it-all cowboy”

Describe your tech team in a few words

Amazing, curious, and involved. Everybody wants to do well, everybody works for the same purpose, which is great. Nobody kills themselves at work either, which makes it a very sane environment to be in.

We have different personalities in the team, which gives a real dynamic to the group. Everybody cares to listen what the others have to say, and we don’t have a “know-it-all cowboy”. The team spirit is prevalent.

What’s the main thing you look at during a hiring process?

The most interesting part is to interact with the person: is there a good feeling? Can this person teach me something? Does this person understand the real problem behind my apparently genuine question? Are they generating ideas, or just following what we’re asking them to do?

One thing that I strictly follow is what some call the no asshole policy. Quite self explanatory.

Any hiring tip for our fellow CTOs?

Don’t underestimate the time it takes to hire someone. One of the best signs of an interview is that it takes longer than expected, and the team keeps asking questions way after the scheduled time is over.

 

Let’s project ourselves a bit

We went from being a tiny startup to needing to rent an entire bus to go on a company weekend trip

Where do you see Drivy in two years?

A better product, better integrated with the cars themselves. We’re in five countries for now, we’ll be in a lot more.

So basically everything in better!

Any problems you can see arriving soon?

We definitely have risks linked to the growth of the company. In 4.5 years, we went from being a tiny startup to needing to rent an entire bus to go on a company weekend trip.

There’s a lot of things that used to work when the company was small and that don’t when you grow, and you need to adapt to them. The hard part is to make sure you realize your mistakes and correct them quickly.

Article written by Alban Dumouilla and originally published on CTO.Pizza

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