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Agile is Dead – Long Live DevOps?

Agile, Lean, and DevOps are more than buzzwords even though they have taken over the world at different times. The processes and technologies they employed have helped improve the entire world, not just the software world. Klaus Bucka-Lassen, Lars Kruse, and Malte Foegen debate the intersection and cross-pollination between the three worlds with a focus on applying them on all levels in practice in large organizations.

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Agile, Lean, and DevOps are more than buzzwords even though they have taken over the world at different times. The processes and technologies they employed have helped improve the entire world, not just the software world. Klaus Bucka-Lassen, Lars Kruse, and Malte Foegen debate the intersection and cross-pollination between the three worlds with a focus on applying them on all levels in practice in large organizations.


Klaus Bucka-Lassen: Hi, we're here at GOTO Aarhus 2022. I'm sitting here with Lars Kruse and Malte Foegen, two guys I've known for quite a while. They both talked at the conference yesterday and that would lead me already to my first question after you have, like, maybe made a short introduction of yourself. The question would be then, after your talk, you gave your talk yesterday, maybe give a brief some of what it was. Then from the feedback that you got, do you have any thoughts or anything you would like to change or do differently?

Lars Kruse: Yeah. Sure.

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: So, Lars, tell us, like, a few words, please.

Lars Kruse: I think my talk took off set in my background, which is continuous delivery and DevOps. And, today, I think I'm at a place where I'm trying to enthusiastically embrace serverless as a concept. I try to give kind of a situation on where we are today. And maybe these DevOps and agile communities or generations are getting old and should take their learnings and pass them on to the next generations. Then an insight into what would the next generations have and what would their claim to fame be. And I think it's serverless, it's SaaS products, it's delicious software, it's something else. So, trying to provoke maybe a bit, agile is over, done, complete. DevOps is over, done, and complete. Mission completed. Let's move on.

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: Ok. And Malte?

Malte Foegen: Well, that's interesting, because I talked about that solution somehow is not complete. It's about that I think we've done a lot of agile on the team level. But I think we are missing out on the other levels in an organization. If we wanted to have responsive, agile organizations, I think we need to go further than just think it through on a team level. I think we're missing pieces there. And that was a talk about. 

I still feel that we kind of might need to connect management and team level with management on an organizational level and understand how the pieces fit together. That probably needs some empathy from both sides. So, that was my talk.

And by the way, my background is that of a head of a consulting company with 100 people. So we do agile ourselves so I know all the hurdles about thinking agile with teams and connecting ideas of different teams so that it comes up with a coherent strategy for all 100 people. 

Also, I understand when we consult clients about the different difficulties and the different industries. For example, if you have building cars, or if you're building software, sometimes there are similarities between the problems they have and sometimes they're different. And that's kind of like my background in building organizations.

Lean, agile, and DevOps in large organizations

Lars Kruse: Would that be large organizations or is it in general?

Malte Foegen: All sizes. I think it's really in general. So we have clients with just 100 people, but we also have clients which are 100,000 people. I think the culture grows more rigid the larger the organization becomes and it becomes more difficult, of course, to address culture and the way an organization works, because with 100,000 people, it's kind of like has been established over the last 50 years, and with 100 people, probably has been established in the last 10 years.

Lars Kruse: Okay, but...

Malte Foegen: It's a lot more fluid, I think if it's smaller.

Lars Kruse: I've been working with large organizations also for two decades. And it's agile-ish, although we didn't go specifically into agile, I think we called it continuous delivery and DevOps. We were more focused on infrastructure and automating that, but still, my impression after having worked for almost two decades with large organizations is that it's difficult to take some of these values that we recognize as agile, lean, or DevOps and make them scale into these large-sized organization. I find that hard and I'm at the brink of actually calling it and saying, okay, we tried it for a long time but scaled agile doesn't work. What is your take on that?

Malte Foegen: I'm still thinking if it will work. And I understand because the larger the organizations get, I think it becomes more, as I said, rigid or stable, I think because with 100,000 people you need to agree on things. Then it takes more time for 100,000 people to agree on different things. Of course, it becomes more stable. And the benefit is maybe that they have broader recognition in the market so that's the value they get. But they're maybe not that adaptable to the market. So I think the larger they get, the responsiveness becomes harder and harder and harder. So I agree that maybe agile is not possible for large organizations, but coming from the teams up, maybe just switching it around, coming from the teams, I think we figure that out somehow for the team level. I think we also have good answers on a level where we work with several teams. Let's say it's 100 to 120 people, I think for those sizes, we already do have good answers that have proven to work. Maybe kind of like we think incremental, coming up from, okay, we haven't understood how it works for our team but we understand how it works when we're put together.

Recommended talk: Agility is Inefficient • Klaus Bucka-Lassen • GOTO 2021

Lars Kruse: I'm thinking, but does that mean that we can have a large organization that could be thousands of people and we wouldn't have to talk about scaled agile at all, because we would just have individually agile teams? So agile can work at a team level and we wouldn't even have to address the problem of scaling agile because each team would be agile by itself. Is that what you're saying?

Malte Foegen: Well, I think that when you put 10 teams together, let's just say, for now, 10 teams, I think when you want that these 10 teams work together on one thing, they need to align somehow. And even if we kind of have independent teams where the basis maybe only the brand, or maybe only some common foundations they believe in, maybe it's just a cultural thing, or maybe it's just the knowledge they share, they still share something and need to work on that shared knowledge, that shared basis, which I think is still connecting them somehow.

Independent teams in large organizations

Lars Kruse: But how would, you know, with your experience as a manager in agile teams in the plural, do that? Because I would see if I would compare that to something that I recognized, I would see that in open-source communities, people would also work on the same project, right? But they would be quite detached in one way because they have the same alignment, they have the same goals, and they're working towards the same, you know, market or product or whatever. But they're not that coordinated, right?

Malte Foegen: Absolutely.

Lars Kruse: They work very individually. Would you say that that could work in a proprietary product organization as well?

Malte Foegen: Yes, I think that would work. And I think the ultimate goal would be to strive for ultimate independent teams. So I think that's what we should strive for and try to achieve.

Lars Kruse: Would that get buy-in from management in a large, German car organization or a huge pension fund or whatever? Could you get buy-in from that? Don't you think management would run off scared and say, "Well, who's going to control them?"

Malte Foegen: I don't think so. Because I think on the C-level, you can't control this stuff. I think they would readily agree that they can't control anything. I think if you look at owners, maybe midsize companies, 1000 people or so, I think where you still have private ownership, I think they're very much into their own companies and they care about that the company works well. So they're not their managers because they want to own the money, they probably don't care about that. But they do care about the people and the product they have and so on, especially in these mid-sized, privately owned companies. And I think they will do anything that the companies run as independently as possible because they know they can't control 1000 people.

Lars Kruse: But is this something that we can apply to all branches of the company or is this specifically related to software? 

Malte Foegen: Not. I was just thinking of a company where we were approached by the chief executive officer who is the owner and also, has 1000 people. It's a production company, they built switches for cars and machines and whatever. So it's security switches, which switch...the power off, for example, in a car or emergency room when that's a problem. They use lean techniques on the production side. For them, agile in the non-production areas of the company was a very natural thing because they immediately recognize the similarities and kind of like understanding are common on the production side, common in the white-collar area, which is kind of like the same thinking and even broader thinking on the production side closer to the thinking at the white-collar part of the organization. And that the chief executive thinks that teams should be as independent as possible. That would be kind of like saying he works every day.

Lars Kruse: I like the idea. Also, I sometimes use the analogy to agile, which I find, at a management level, is very close to OKR, objectives, and key results. Essentially, we have for many years been measuring people's work with KPIs. But as soon as you take those KPIs and say, we're not just measuring, at whatever can be measured, we have specific objectives, things that management or investment themes can say, this is what we're hoping to achieve within the next, you know, eight months and so that's an objective. 

Then you asked the people who are not necessarily software developers, and then, therefore, might not, you know, be familiar with the Agile concept, but you're giving the same kind of assignment saying that, if this is what we're hoping to achieve within the next 18 months, then what would you do about it? Then the people, the companies, the managers, the mid-level managers, they get to get back and say, okay, this is what we're hoping to achieve, then we would address it like this. And now it starts looking a lot like a backlog in an agile context, even though it has nothing to do with software.

Recommended talk: Can Top-Down Agile Work? • Luxshan Ratnaravi, Mikkel Noe-Nygaard & Malte Foegen • GOTO 2022

Malte Foegen: Absolutely. And that's, I think, how they work. I think that OKR, and what we do with backlogs are kind of like the same idea, maybe coming from a different angle, but kind of I guess thinks the same idea. That company, which I was just talking about, they're using those techniques. That I think is a good example while striving for every team to be independent, what they do regularly is for getting these objectives for the company together, they get each part of the company people. So it's kind of like from this 1000 people, 100 meet. They together set the objectives they think are right, and that gets buy-in because when they go back to their teams, the independence of the teams is enabled because they have thought together about what are our common objectives. When they go back to their teams, they kind of like have all that knowledge of the discussions between them bringing back to the team. So this is what I'm thinking about when I think about alignment, enabling autonomy, as Nigel Baker said. I think that is when we talk about management in an agile way, thinking I want to make a team independent, so what environment and what framing do I need to enable that autonomy and that independence? Because independence in the Infinity space is not possible.

I have a very nice example. Because we as a company, go sailing. You can put the ship on the sand and then you can go swimming outside. And no one on the ship was able to jump outside because we were already all frightened that kind of like, when can I swim? And then the captain just got some tape out. And in the outs in the water, he marked safe water, and everyone was jumping out. And I asked him well, but it's all shallow here. You can swim everywhere. It's always safe because we're sitting on the ground. And he said, "Yes, but I need to set the frame so people are jumping into the water."

Lars Kruse: Like lemmings? No, I'm kidding.

Malte Foegen: Lemmings, the water is not safe but this is kind of like, you know, there's a frame...

Lars Kruse: Yes, I get it.

Malte Foegen: I think the frame does enable you kind of like to focus maybe a little bit.

The clash: DevOps and agile

Lars Kruse: I agree with you. But I think today, I mean, as Klaus said, we're here at the conference, right? And we've been talking a lot about agile, we've both been presenting at the agile track. Some of the things that I find about this agile, some of these cultures are kind of they're fighting each other, right? They're fighting over the right to, name the thing, right?

Malte Foegen: Which cultures do you mean?

Lars Kruse: Agile, for instance, I think it's growing and growing and growing. We talked about this, the Danish labor union of economics, that they just called agile to be the third most annoying word among white-collar workers in Denmark. And I think agile is becoming a bloated term, right? In the beginning, it was very specific. We're talking about this, we're trying to solve this very specific problem that organizations have a hard time dealing with in their creative processes because they're thinking in sequential processes, yadda, yadda. And that was what agile tried to solve. To then today, it's 20 years later, we're still talking about agile, but now it contains the entire world. I've been part of the DevOps community for many years and what I've seen in DevOps is that people are starting to talk about values, they talk about DevOps culture.

And suddenly I hear people who maybe not are necessary, you know, interested in agile, but they are interested in DevOps, they just, you know, kind of swapped the tired horse for a new, you know, fresh pony and now they're riding that. And all the values that we used to put into agile, they just basically inherited and said this is DevOps but isn't that agile? And agile was doing quite a bit of the same because it took over a lot of the values that were in Lean and started calling them agile. So it's a culture war. People are just taking over each other's work. And instead of standing on the shoulders of it, they just basically in that we created this. And this is also why I think that agile maybe originally it was in the context of software development. Are we stretching it too far?

Malte Foegen: No, it wasn't.

Lars Kruse: It was.

Malte Foegen: No, it wasn't.

Lars Kruse: It was.

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: Of course, I mean, the 17 signatories of the Agile Manifesto were also after DevOps.

Malte Foegen: But before that, we had these lean product development, and we had this new product development game.

Lars Kruse: But that's my point exactly about it. Because before that we had lean.

Malte Foegen: But isn't agile just lean for white-collar work?

Lars Kruse: No.

Malte Foegen: So what's different?

Lars Kruse: Actually, I'm giving it to you...I'm saying yes, maybe. I'm just asking the question because if we have to stay with the semantics and the historical origin of what we're talking about agile was originally something that worked in the context of software.

Malte Foegen: In software, that's true.

Lars Kruse: I am not saying that it cannot be expanded to have any other meaning as well. It can potentially. I'm just asking the question, and it's an open question, can we just continuously expand agile to mean everything? And I'm asking because of this white-collar workers survey that called agile to be the third most annoying word in Danish workplaces among white-collar workers. It gives me some kind of, you know, I'm just worried maybe it's a bloated term.

Malte Foegen: Well, it certainly is a bloated term because any term that kind of like grows when we had kind of like lean too much, maybe then it was probably the word of that time.

Lars Kruse: I think you're right.

Malte Foegen: Totally. And so it was very good ideas and they weren't limited to production as from agile world can tell. So I think agile works and it doesn't come from software. So agile, I think, is a way of working. And it was very good for the software industry thing because it solved problems we had in the software industry, but I think they have the same problems when they build a car. It's not different from the problems we have in the software world.

Lars Kruse: But I agree with you that…

Recommended talk: The Future of DevOps • PJ Hagerty & Hanna Park • GOTO 2021

Malte Foegen: It's useful too and just because of the use of the word because...

Lars Kruse: I just personally find that these words are important. Maybe just trying to see what's what, so that we don't start falling over each other's feet, basically calling things that are outside their original meaning. Because then anything can start meaning anything and this is how we use the language when we say something. It can kind of encapsulate abstractions or things. I know exactly what you're saying when you say agile. I'm thinking back to extreme programming and iterative and incremental. I'm thinking back to the ski resort in Utah in 2001 where 17 celebrity software developers called it, "We invented agile." That was the original context for agile. Now it means nothing, right? You could even say that OKR...we just agreed that OKR is agile-ish, right? But then everything is contained within agile. I don't like that.

Malte Foegen: I wouldn't like that either. But that's very good next talk to kind of like define what agile is because I think...

Lars Kruse: I wouldn't go there.

What is agile?

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: So what is agile to you guys? If you have to define agile, what is it?

Lars Kruse: Well, to me, it was a very, very important movement that started back then in the late '90s when people started seeing that software is indeed a creative process. There's a huge amount of complexity in software. A lot of people say that it's hard for a large-sized organization to deal with it, that creative process, and be productive. And then a handful of people came up with some pretty good suggestions as to, how we address that specific problem. How do we make room for creative processes in software in large-sized organizations? It was a handful of techniques and it was a very important critique of the sequential waterfall-like processes in a large organization. And to me, that's what agile is, it's good for that.

Recommended talk: Expert Talk: Managing Complexity in Software

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: Okay, so we were just on a 30-floor elevator ride. That's what you told me and I didn't know anything about agile, I would step out of the elevator and still don't know anything about it. So you get another chance.

Lars Kruse: At what?

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: What is agile? I don't know anything about it and I'm stepping into the elevator with you. I was like, "I've seen you, you're the agile expert, right?" But we're riding to, let's say, the 10th floor.

Malte Foegen: Okay, perfect. So, I would say agile is a handful of techniques that can be used to fit the creative process that software development is into large-size corporations that inherently think in sequential processes. So it's a way that we can make room for these creative software development processes in large organizations.

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: Okay. Malte?

Malte Foegen: It's interesting. My definition is that it's the responsiveness of an organization or a team in a complex world where you have surprises, either technically wise or market-wise and you're able to respond to that in a resilient way. And we have enough techniques to do that. And I think that resilience and responsiveness apply to software where it was needed. And now I think hardware, for example, can learn from that.

Lars Kruse: I like it, I like it a lot. I like what you're saying, it's just that, in my world, this is agile inheriting a lot of the principles that come out of lean, where we're trying basically to have...we have a problem with the market fit. I mean, lean was invented by Toyota because they had a hard time struggling with the American car industry. They needed to be far more adaptive, right? Reading the market, switching, and hitting the call from the market in a swift and agile way. So this was actually about putting products to the market.

Lean vs Agile

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: But is Lean that? Isn't Lean much more about like improving processes and efficiency?

Lars Kruse: Well, I think, well, lean is I think about being swift in shifting directions and reading the customer's voice and heeding the call from the customer's voice. I think that was essentially what they tried to do in Toyota at the time., saying that let's try to adapt what we're doing to what people actually wanna buy instead of what we think they wanna buy. In that process, they needed to become very swift at what they were doing because car manufacturing is a rigid process. And a lot of the things that they do then came to be about how do we optimize our internal processes so that we can easily switch direction to hit the market.

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: Because I'm not sure that Toyota sees it the same way themselves.

Lars Kruse: They have this single-minute exchange of die, which is one of their core stories in lean, and I think it describes it well. That if you wanna adapt to a market, then you have a process inside your factory that takes, like, weeks to change the die so that you can stop doing Toyota Corollas and start doing Toyota Camrys. That's going to take you seven days to make that exchange. But if you can do that in just one hour, then you can make 4 Corollas, and 18 Camrys. So basically, what you can do is by optimizing your internal flow, making all the waste in your process go away, then you can adapt to the market easier.

Malte Foegen: I agree, and I think they're high similarities. I would add, I think agile thought more about also that it will be a waste if you don't hit the market. Lean starts with we need to deliver value to the customer, so it's the same as agile. I would say agile is a little bit more looking at constantly checking, are we still having market fit more often? But I think the main difference is that with agile we started to rethink the lean techniques and approach them to development. That was where we did rethink at the beginning, right? I remember a company where they were, again, the factory, one big hall, and the factory site was perfectly lean. You could eat from the floor, so perfect lean. And then next to the factory site is the same big building, they had the development teams who developed the factory lines. And you went through the door and the same building and lean stopped at the door. You went through that and you looked at the Gantt chart. You were saying, where is the command? Where is the...they call it the standard meeting in the factory, so where is your standard meeting, which they doing in the other room? And nothing, all gone. I think that change was agile, that all the thinking that we know had for white-collar work, I think really to be reinvented. That reinvention of lean for the white collar and especially for development work, I think was where agile was born.

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: I think Toyota doesn't see themselves necessarily as good product developers. Yes, they came out with a Prius at the right time. But for instance, electrical cars, and other things have been responsive and able to react quickly. I know they have hired consultancies in the U.S. to help them like improve and become agile in product development, meanwhile being world experts on lean. So I don't think agile is just a new term for lean.

Lars Kruse: No, no, I agree. I agree. But I think that to some extent, just putting agile in the context of optimizing teams related to software development, and then all those things we need to do to optimize organizations, call it what it is. It's lean, it's not agile. Agile, it's about software development. So this is...

Malte Foegen: Maybe the reserved word for software.

Lars Kruse: No, no, no, no. I'm just putting it back into its original context. So I'm just basically skipping that lean inspires agile, and then agile becomes the entire world and DevOps...

Malte Foegen: I don't think it's…

Buzzwords in software

Lars Kruse: Hang on for a second. So, maybe we could just skip the whole, take lean and make it inspire agile and then explode agile to mean the entire world because a lot of the things that we're trying to do today when we are trying to optimize these large-sized organizations is exactly lean. So you don't need to call it agile because it's just plain lean. You don't need to go over the bridge to fetch water, you can just call it lean.

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: But just to do the loopback, I remembered probably about five or eight years ago, I was in Denmark, and talking to my sister-in-law. She's a psychologist, and she's like, "They're trying to make everything lean." I think if you did that survey that Djof did eight years ago, lean would have been in the top three.

Lars Kruse: I'm glad that you're bringing up this topic because I think that you're right. So I think there's kind of a tendency that we're just gonna wear out these terms, right? Because lean was worn out, turned out, it was bloated, and we had to come up with something else. Then we call it agile which is now bloated and we have to throw that out.

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: No, no, no, let's talk a little bit about that. Why does that happen? Agile, for instance, I see is being attached to everything today. Like there's agile HR, there's agile procure, there's agile...

Lars Kruse: My point exactly.

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: ...project management. I don't know, that's an oxymoron in my world. So let's talk more about that. Let's take that question. So we agree that lean at some point was not just worn off and became boring, but it annoyed people. We've seen the same with agile as we refer to this Djof...

Lars Kruse: Good point. Agree.

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: ...survey, when people voted it as the third most annoying word in job relation. But more generally, that seems to be a pattern. Why does that happen?

Lars Kruse: Perfect. Good question.

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: Well, now I need a good answer.

Lars Kruse: I think it's because it's like it attracted other people, right? People find this interesting and more and more people say, this is interesting. They genuinely become inspired by saying, "I'm inspired by agile. I want to be part of that." And you can't shut them out and say, "No, you can't be part of this. You're not a software developer. You're not allowed in." So obviously, I mean, this is an open party, right? So yeah, come join the agile party. And suddenly you have so many people...

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: So, agile is the turd and there are lots of flies.

Lars Kruse: I wouldn't say that. No, I would more than like say like, it's a small, cozy festival because it's popular. I mean, you get a lot of spread, and then 10 years later, it's a huge festival and it's not cozy anymore, right? So, it's not a turd, right? We can have different analogies about it. It's not necessarily a bad thing. But I'm just saying that if we're using that analogy that it's a small, cozy festival that just grows so big that it's not small and cozy anymore, it's still good for a lot of people. They still love it. But those people who want small cozy festivals will have to abandon that festival and go somewhere else to find another small, cozy festival. I think that's what's happening. That's why lean can still be a big thing and agile can still be a big thing. But you also need to find the next cozy thing.

Malte Foegen: But I think why a term gets worn out is because when you have a term that you learn is good to say, everyone started saying it. Even as a chaotic project, then it's gonna be labeled as agile. So, it's just a good word. You put a good word in front of it, and then it starts to be misused. I think any word that becomes popular becomes misused.

Lars Kruse: But I think this is...

Malte Foegen: We should be proud.

Lars Kruse: I think we should. I mean, as a community, the whole generation of agile, and even I take DevOps into that account as well, we managed to do something good and the world became better. But also, this is what I was trying to address in my speech, the next generation, they're not gonna be jaw-droppingly impressed by agile, right? The Zoomers that come out now, they don't even know who these, you know, agile celebrities are or they hate it, right? They hate it so much that it's the third most annoying word in the workplace so they will come up with something else. I think that we should see that that is happening. And as an agile DevOps generation, we should see, what is it that we have that we can not impose on them as something that they must do, but give them good advice. We have created this and we would hope that you will take this and stand on the shoulders of this. Then we will look interested to watch you and see what will you use it for. What will your claim to fame be? But I think the era of agile and DevOps is over. The next generation needs to take over. The software has eaten it.

Malte Foegen: I think the next generation has to take over because that's how the world is running. But I also think that social systems change much slower than we change the terms for them. So even when we called lean a day, it wasn't over. And when we call agile a day, it won't be over because we've learned a lot that maybe has become a matter of course, but it's still good.

Lars Kruse: Yeah.

Malte Foegen: Maybe just call it differently because...

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: If lean and agile is over, it helps me because I was kind of annoyed when DevOps and everybody were talking about DevOps. I was like, whenever I ask somebody, please define DevOps to me, what is it? It's like, but that's agile? So, okay, and apparently, I missed the DevOps train, too. I should have called myself a DevOps coach probably for a while now. I missed that train. What's the next one? Because I'm probably not gonna call myself an agile coach for the next 15 years because it's dead. Thomas also said that agile is dead many years ago already.

Recommended talk: Agile is Dead • Pragmatic Dave Thomas • GOTO 2015

Lars Kruse: I mean, I think that the problems or the challenges that we see now and the challenges are also one of the most inflated bloated words among white-collar workers. But I think one of the things that these next generations will look at is they will get a lot of freedom to utilize all the things that we can now do in software. So they will be able to put their eyes on the ball, actually do participatory design, involve the users, make software delicious, and spend much more time than we did. We said that we wanted to have the user input, but we were hit, buried down in Kubernetes clusters and optimizing organizations. They will have the time, the means, and the tools to go out there and use serverless stacks and build software out of, you know, no code and low-code technologies that will enable them to keep the eye on the ball. Software is supposed to make end-users happy. And they can address the end-user problem. They don't have to write Kubernetes clusters, setups, or whatever. It's gone. It's over. You can just buy that from Google. You don't have to do it yourself.

Klaus Bucka-Lassen: Yes. So I have a long list of questions I could have asked you guys. I think we're getting to the end of this interview. So, thanks very much for your time.

Lars Kruse: Thank you for hosting it.

Malte Foegen: Yes, thank you.

Lars Kruse: And thank you also.