Launching the Globalization Strategy Playbook With Natalia Levitina and Karen Combe

SlatorPod - Globalization Strategy Playbook, Natalia Levitina and Karen Combe

Natalia Levitina and Karen Combe, Members of the GILT Leaders’ Forum, join SlatorPod to talk about GILT’s launch of the Globalization Strategy Playbook, arguably the industry’s most comprehensive, open-source guide to globalization, internalization, and localization yet.

The co-authors recall the various stages of their career in the localization industry and their journey to becoming part of the GILT Leaders Forum. They reflect on their experience writing the 30,000+-word, six-chapter playbook with 10 co-authors from the localization buy-side, and how they drew on key learnings from their professional backgrounds.

The duo discuss the role of primary and secondary stakeholders, from end-users and management chains to procurement and vendors. They advise what language tech tools buyers should choose and prioritize when it comes to the translation management system (TMS), translation productivity (CAT), and machine translation stack.

Natalia and Karen round off with the playbook’s potential for people in the language industry to learn from and build on top of, given that it is open source and available on GitHub.

First up, Florian and Esther discuss the language industry news of the week, with Meta’s (formerly Facebook) CTO Mike Schroepfer tweeting about machine translation as their team won in 10 out of 14 language pairs at the WMT 2021.

Esther talks about French investment firm Amethis acquiring a minority stake in UAE-headquartered Tarjama, with their newly launched fund, Amethis MENA Fund II. Meanwhile, Airbnb announced it had launched Translation Engine, which allows users to automatically read translations of reviews and descriptions in up to 60 languages.

Florian then touches on the implications of a formal opinion issued by the American Bar Association, entitled Language Access in the Client-Lawyer Relationship.

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Florian: Tell us more about your background in various stages of your career in the localization industry? Just so we have got a bit of a sense of where you are coming from.

Karen: I did work on the vendor side of localization for 10 years. I worked for International Language Engineering in Boulder which was eventually bought by int’ and Lionbridge. I was the 12th employee there so I was in very early when the industry looked quite different and we worked quite differently on the vendor side. I did a bunch of different jobs there, starting with desktop publishing at which I was not very talented, and moving on to project management, which was much more my skill set. Eventually, I managed the production team and was the General Manager and then eventually moved on to Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing, and in 99 I got recruited by PTC, which was then Parametric Technology. I was asked to form a Localization Department. Up until that time, it had been a translation team that was tucked inside of the documentation team, so my job was to form a Localization Department which I did over the course of 20 years and eventually got promoted from a Director to a VP. About 18 months ago, I retired and since then have been consulting a little bit and teaching for the Localization Institute and continuing to enjoy my association with other professionals in the GILT Leaders’ Forum.

Natalia: There are actually some similarities. I also started at an LSP called International Communications and I also started in desktop publishing and I quickly became a manager of the publishing team and then I moved on to a Technology Group at International Communications that was working on a translation tool that was developed by that company. Subsequently, International Communications was bought by Lionbridge, and then when I left, I joined SDL for a couple of years. I was in Sales selling Trados Studio and then I got hired by Karen to work at PTC in the Localization Department so my responsibilities at first were to do a marketing localization program. Then also a big part of it was to implement the TMS that we already had and then I retained the technology piece and built on that. Adding machine translation, cost management tool, business analytics, but then I changed a few things in the department, so I was doing vendor management for a while, managing translators, managing project managers, and then managing translators.

Esther: How did you both become involved and a part of the GILT Leaders’ Forum?

Natalia: For me, it was very easy because I got grandfathered in once Karen left PTC, and somebody needed to represent PTC at the forum.

Karen: The general rule for the Forum is there can only be one person per company. Now we have made exceptions for very, very large companies, but generally, there is only one. I was a part of the forum nearly from the beginning. I cannot remember exactly when it started, but it was somebody from Intel who had the idea that it would be useful for some of us who knew each other, I would say largely through conferences, to be able to meet on a regular basis and exchange ideas about how to manage localization, and so we did. A few years ago we started to have an annual in-person meeting and so one company would find a meeting room for us. Always on the left coast and we would gather there and some other company would sponsor a meal and so we would get to talk about things in person, which was immensely useful. The idea is that in this particular group we are people who have years of experience and we want to continue to help each other to do our jobs better and so we share information. We never share information about vendors or pricing, except maybe in a general way to say, things are getting more expensive or less expensive or something like that. Nobody has charged to be part of the group and we do not charge anybody else to do anything related to the group. It is all voluntary and we enjoy talking to each other.

Esther: Tell us about the Globalization Strategy Playbook. What is it and what was the reason behind its creation? 

Natalia: We have been collecting metrics for a while in the GILT Leaders’ Forum and the idea was that we need to look at it from a strategic perspective. The GILT Leaders’ Forum chartered this strategy thinking task force and a few volunteers signed up. The idea was to formalize how we approach strategy. What do you need to think of in terms of people, processes and technology, when you are looking at strategy? Then people reading it would learn that usually, your strategy flows from your company strategy, or at least from your localization stakeholder strategy. Who are your stakeholders? How are you approaching localization in terms of what problem are you trying to solve? Are you solving the right problem? We wanted to answer all of these questions and once we started meeting, there was a structure that appeared that we followed.

Florian: How was it to write something like this as a collaborative effort with 12 plus people from different backgrounds. How did you guys pull this off logistically? 

Karen: It was very interesting. I got involved a little bit after the group had formed. I was asked to join and I thought I was just going to some meetings so I went to the first meeting and found out what was going on because I had not bothered to read anything that anybody sent me about it. I was assigned a chapter to project manage, but also to write part of the strategy overview chapter. I could say that at the beginning we were very focused on just figuring out what we were going to write about, what the key points were that we needed to cover, and getting people to volunteer for or assign to those chapters. Then as we started to write. In the chapter that I was project managing, there were four of us and each person said, I will cover this or I will cover that or I would want to write about that and so we started. Then as we went along, we realized that there were some things that you need to agree on when you are writing a book. Things we had not considered, how it was going to be published. All we knew was that it was going to be free and unlike me, Natalia was very successful at desktop publishing, so we started dropping hints to her early on that she might want to be involved in publishing. 

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There were some terminology issues and were we going to capitalize Localization? Are we ever going to say L10N? How are we going to do that? What about writing rules and the structure of the document exactly and headers and so forth. Eventually, we added that stuff on, but everybody wrote in their own style, and then at the end Francesca Di Marco edited the whole book. Most of the people working on the book are non-native speakers of English. I cannot remember whether it is more than half or not, so Francesca looked at the book from the point of view of content organization or repetition of this or that, and Mimi Hills who had done professional editing in her career, looked at it more from the writing point of view and I looked at it from sentence-level editing. I can do grammar and syntax and spelling, but that was my limitation so, it came together very gradually. People edited themselves, teams edited themselves, but then we had more editing to draw the content together. From the point of view of somebody who writes about research, it would be interesting to hear your views about whether we succeeded in making it sound like something that is more or less together as it were.

Esther: Absolutely. It sounds fascinating both the output and then also the whole process. Karen, obviously you spent a long time building the localization team at PTC, were there any key learnings or things that you had experienced during those two decades working at PTC that you thought, I absolutely have to make sure that this gets into the playbook. 

Karen: Yes, I could say that. First of all, when I got to PTC I thought I knew everything about localization. I was in a pretty senior position in one of the five best localization companies around at the time. I got to PTC and it was a big change in the sense that suddenly I was not the most important thing going on in the company. At ILE obviously, everybody is focused on localization. At PTC there were a few of us focused on localization and nobody else cared and so, making sure that the potential contribution of a localization team, which in many cases has evolved to a globalization team for many companies, is appreciated for what it does for the company. Not just in terms of operations, but in terms of the strategy of the company. Most of us in the group that worked on this playbook came to this realization over the course of many years and worked to try to figure out how to get it done because that was the hard part and a lot of the ideas that we exchanged were about how to make the group relevant and appear to be visible as relevant. That was the single most important thing that I learned and wanted to share with other people.

Florian: Natalia, you worked in product management, program management, tech, operations, resources. What lessons did you draw from that? What were some of the key things for you to get into the playbook?

Natalia: I contributed mainly to the technology chapter. That was of a lot of interest to me so I signed up for that, a little bit to the language strategy chapter and then publishing was my main challenge. What was interesting for me is working with this distinguished group of professionals, learning from them what their experiences have been. If you read the book, there are a lot of examples there, that we actually had to come up with personas. We had to think about a few people, some of them work in established localization departments, some of them are in startups, so we need to distinguish them and relate to their experiences and tell people how to approach some problems. Not just theory, but a component of that. That was an extremely interesting piece for me to learn how everybody had approached solving a problem at their company and just in general working with people. How do you start writing? I have never written a book in a collaborative effort before, so what do you do? 

In the technology chapter, we started thinking about it backward so when we have a reader, what would we want them to know about and to learn about. We did that first and then we broke into sections, so what is it that we are talking about? What do we mean by technology? Then why are we talking about it? How do we solve a problem? Then we have people sign up for different pieces. We would meet, have to agree on what we are trying to say, fill in the gaps and find a volunteer to do the next thing. The other thing that I learned is that anything can be done when people commit to it, when there is a great person driving the efforts and when there is a deadline. That is another very important piece. When you add up around 200 years of localization experience combined from all of these people who contributed to the book, that also is helpful.

Florian: Tell us more about the positioning of localization in the company. How you see primary, secondary stakeholders in this and how you have conversations and position loc within the organization.

Natalia: What you are trying to do when you look at all of your stakeholders is differentiate who they are. Obviously, those teams that you provide services to are your primary stakeholders. You are translating documentation training materials. Who are you working with? R&D, marketing, sales, customer support, people like that. The other very important audience is end-users. What are they thinking about what you are doing and how you are measuring their engagement? Then the other primary stakeholder that you do not want to forget is your management chain and that is where it is extremely important to figure out who in the company you want to be working with. Not just necessarily your direct chain of command, but other people in the company who should know and who should care about localization. Karen, you have a great example of how you put that together at PTC. 

Karen: PTC after some years, as it evolved, formed a strategy group at the executive level and they looked at what markets PTC should be trying to address going forward and they used a lot of industry research to inform their thinking on this. One of the ways in which they thought about it is by geography and geography could be very general. It could be Southeast Asia, for example, or Southern Europe and it was not obvious how that geo approach would be transformed into a language approach and so we noticed this. I went to the leader of this group and said, it would be interesting and helpful for us to be able to get some industry research that aligns more with languages rather than large groups of countries. I positioned this as being helpful to us. In fact, I thought it was going to be helpful to the company to look at it this way and fortunately we got great support from this group. Somebody was immediately assigned to go out and try to get the research that they normally did in terms of language and that started an interaction that we continued to have over a number of years of looking at what markets we should be addressing in a more complete way. This is probably one of the other things that you would be interested in when you look at building a business case, you cannot just look in terms of language at localizing the product. You have to look at all of the other activities that need to go along with supporting a product and how that is going to happen in the relevant language. This collaboration with the strategy team was successful. We got a lot of visibility for the department because we were obviously helping the company to achieve its goals and it was useful. I Recruit Talent. Find Jobs

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Florian: There is an ROI component involved there. Did you manage to track this numerically? How do you deliver the numbers that so many stakeholders may want to see?

Karen: For us, we had the complication of not selling. It is different for different companies. We did not sell languages, we sold products and when you bought the product, you got all languages so how are we going to know what revenue to attribute to what language? First of all, we have to start with countries, so revenue is attributed to countries according to what is called a ship to allocation. If a company in France buys our product, the revenue is attributed to France so that was the first thing that we looked at and then I worked with finance to gather those countries into languages so that we could look at revenue by language. Then we looked at revenues for the product, we looked at revenue for training, and we looked at revenue for maintenance, which was pre-subscription, a huge component of revenue. Compared that to costs, which were something that we could easily track, and presented that information at least about the product and gradually included other department costs in there as well so that we got a pretty good picture of how things were going. 

Natalia: Your secondary stakeholders that are important are people in finance, people in IT, people in procurement. IT these days may not even let you buy tools if they do not have a single system or depending on your company culture if they are not in the cloud. You need to form a good relationship with them and understand their requirements and for them to understand how mission-critical your tools are to your business. With finance, you have got to work with them to understand all of these numbers and on your budget, of course. Then with procurement, it was interesting how we had some new executives in procurement who wanted to understand more what we are doing and how we are tracking our costs because they were doing it across the board for the whole company. Once we met with them and we showed them the tool we were using and how we knew down to the penny what we are spending they left us alone. It is important to build these relationships. One more stakeholder that is often forgotten but is considered in the book, is your vendors. Vendors are your long-term partners that are all behind you. They are such a huge extension of your team that you have to consider them in whatever you are doing, especially if you are buying technology that they will be having to use on a daily basis. 

Esther: What advice do you have for buyers when it comes to choosing technology, whether it is TMS or translation productivity or machine translation? 

Natalia: That is a great question and that is what we asked ourselves at the beginning. As a newcomer to the field, you probably know you have got to buy TMS or you have got to look at TMS at least and machine translation, but what other tools are there, and how to know how to prioritize these and what to get? We broke it down into a technology maturity model that you will see in the book and it goes from an initial phase where you are just doing things in Excel because you will only have one language and one product and you do not have any budgets. Then there is iterative, managed, integrated, and advanced. Even though the advanced state is where you get all of these other great tools like query management, terminology management, resource management, DevOps, and internationalization tools, it is not enough that you have all of these tools implemented. What you need to look at is how much interoperability is there between all of these tools because if they are standalone and you constantly shovel data from one to another, you go back in that slider of how far you are in that maturity model. 

Then reporting is also very important so you need to build all of the reporting so that you know what you are doing and you can measure it. Things get out of fashion. It is true 10 years ago, we were just starting with MT and look at where we are at with machine translation now. If you attended the MT summit 2021 you would know that there is context-aware MT now, there is multimodality MT. There is all sorts of research going on that is waiting to be implemented. With TMS as well, you want to be aware of what you implement because if you put so much effort into implementing the tool, but then you decide that tool is not working for you five years from now, you want to try to change it but you have already integrated it at all, you have customized it, and the parsers are different between different TMS systems so you might be looking at a big investment down the road if you want to change things. The advice is that you need to look at where you are within your current journey. Think about your future needs with TMS as far out as possible to try to understand how to serve not only your needs for today but your needs for the future. Also, choose a technology vendor that has a good roadmap, that is focused on growing and investing in new technology. 

Florian: How hard is it to switch a TMS if you have ever done this? 

Karen: Really hard. The main reason and the business case breaker is the leverage loss, so at PTC, we had huge products, millions of words of documentation, millions of words of software, and not everything is updated at every release, but there are occasions when we wanted to put all of the content through the TM because we wanted to make a terminology change that we felt was very important. In fact, we went through a period of intense terminology scrutiny and updating to more consistency and correctness. First of all, try to calculate what that leverage loss is going to be and work with whatever vendor that you are looking at to try to mitigate that. Why do we have to have different parsers? Seriously, it makes their product more sticky. Mostly just rouses this intense antagonism, I would say for that. It is hugely challenging.

Natalia: There are some good things that we have implemented in our TMS. Looking at all of the other tools, there was one particular feature that none of the tools had and so it took them a while to figure out how they would even approach implementing that. That would be reinvesting into something that we already had. We did look at a few technologies and the numbers did not work out to switch.

Florian: Are you planning to update the playbook and is it a living document or are you glad it is done and it is out there? What are your next initiatives, if there is anything after this?

Karen: We are temporarily resting on our laurels. We are very happy that it is done. Keeping in mind that all these people have day jobs and this was extra work for them. I also want to say how incredibly supportive people were to each other. The hope is that we will get feedback on the book. Eventually, we may do another version of it if we get enough interesting feedback and the other answer is that we do not have any particular projects in mind that we are thinking about. For the moment we are just meeting every other week and talking it over.

Natalia: We have published both of these works on GitHub and they both use the creative commons non-commercial license so that means that anybody can read it for free and also anybody can build upon that work for free, as long as they stick to the same license that we have used and they do not use it for commercial purposes. Our hope is that people in the community will learn about this work and will build on this work. If you can go to GitHub and you star our repository, so people know about this work and they can start contributing to it as well. Our next move is to get the community engaged.