How to become a localization project manager

The Greek philosopher Socrates said “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.” I kept thinking of this while sitting in a restaurant with Alexandra waiting for my order to arrive. We work for the same company, and even in the same office, so Alexandra invited me to lunch to ask me about opportunities in the localization industry.

Alexandra Proca is a linguistic tester for Romanian with a background in journalism and marketing, and she wants to become a localization project manager. How can she achieve this — how can she move up from a testing position for a niche language to a project management job? She asked for my advice because I am currently a project manager. Frankly, our career paths are quite similar, as I was a linguist myself for seven years before I decided not to be restricted to a single language and became a localization project manager. Since I expected this career change to be a challenge, I got a master’s degree in localization project management from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) in Monterey, California, two and a half years ago.

“What should I do? Do I need to get a degree in order to become a PM in the localization industry? Should I maybe get a certificate? What would you recommend?”

I simply did not know how to respond. To me, the degree was a ticket into the industry. But does she have to spend two years studying for a master’s? Since she’s already in the industry, maybe she could continue working and gaining experience? Or should she at least get something — maybe not a master’s, but some sort of a professional certificate?

I didn’t know what to recommend. I really wanted to help Alexandra, and maybe more broadly, anyone already in an entry-level localization position who wants to become a project manager.

I decided to talk to people who have been in the industry for a while, who have seen it evolve and know where it’s going. My main question was: what should a person do to start a localization project manager career? I interviewed several experts who shared their vision and perspectives — academics, industry professionals and recruiters.

I spoke with Mimi Moore, account manager at Anzu Global, a recruiting company for the localization industry; Tucker Johnson, managing director of Nimdzi Insights; Max Troyer, translation and localization management program coordinator at MIIS, and Jon Ritzdorf, senior solution architect at Moravia and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland and at MIIS. All of them are industry veterans and have extensive knowledge and understanding of its processes.

Why localization project management?

The first question is: Why localization project management? Why is this considered a move upwards compared to the work of linguists who are the industry lifeblood?

According to Renato Beninatto and Tucker Johnson’s The General Theory of the Translation Company, “project management is the most crucial function of the LSP. Project management has the potential to most powerfully impact an LSP’s ability to add value to the language services value chain.”

“Project managers are absolutely the core function in a localization company,” said Johnson. “It is important to keep in mind that language services providers do not sell translation, they sell services. Project managers are responsible for coordinating and managing all of the resources that need to be coordinated in order to deliver to the client: they are managing time, money, people and technology.”

Nine times out of ten, Johnson added, the project manager is the face of the company to the client. “Face-to-face contact and building the relationship are extremely important.”

This is why The General Theory of the Translation Company regards project management to be one of the core functions of any language service provider (LSP). This in no way undermines the value of all the other industry players, especially linguists who do the actual translation work. However, the industry cannot do without PMs because “total value is much higher than the original translations. This added value is at the heart of the language services industry.” This is why clients are happy to pay higher prices to work with massive multiple services providers instead of working directly with translators.

Who are they?

The next question is, how have current project managers become project managers?

“From the beginning, when the industry started 20 years ago, there were no specialized training programs for project managers,” Troyer recounted. “So there were two ways. One is you were a translator, but wanted to do something else — become an editor, for example, or start to manage translators. The other route was people working in a business that goes global. So there were two types of people who would become project managers — former translators or people who were assigned localization as a job task.”

According to Ritzdorf, this is still the case in many companies. “I am working with project managers from three prospective clients right now, all of whom do not have a localization degree and are all in localization positions. Did they end up there because they wanted to? Maybe not. They did not end up there because they said ‘Wow, I really want to become a head of localization.’ They just ended up there by accident, like a lot of people do.”

“There are a lot of people who work in a company and who have never heard of localization, but guess what? It is their job now to do localization, and they have to figure it out all by themselves,” Moore confirmed.

“When the company decides to go international, they have to find somebody to manage that,” said Ritzdorf. “For example, Bob in the engineering team happens to be multilingual and interested in the company’s international expansion; this is the way it works in many companies. They do not even know what localization is; in those cases, Bob may just be put in that role, but his title does not even have the word ‘localization’ in it. I have seen many people like that, and their actual title had nothing to do with localization. They are a technical writer, a junior developer or a program manager; they simply happen to bump into the international aspect.”

So maybe Alexandra doesn’t even need experience or a degree in project management. Since she is a linguistic tester and already in the industry, why can’t she simply move up? Especially when people who don’t even know the word “localization” actually do this job?

Not so fast — as Ritzdorf says, “there is no black and white.” One of the phenomena that complicates outcomes is regionalization.


The first to mention regionalization was Ritzdorf, and then other interviewees confirmed it exists. Ritzdorf lives on the East Coast of the United States, but comes to the West Coast to teach at MIIS, so he sees the differences.

“There are areas where localization is a thing, which means when you walk into a company, they actually know about localization. Since there are enough people who understand what localization is, they want someone with a background in it.” Silicon Valley is a great example, said Ritzdorf. MIIS is close; there is a localization community that includes organizations like Women in Localization; and there are networking events like IMUG. “People live and breathe localization. However, there is a totally different culture in other regions, which is very fragmented. There are tons of little companies in other parts of the US, and the situation there is different. If I am a small LSP owner in Wisconsin or Ohio, what are my chances of finding someone with a degree or experience to fill a localization position for a project manager? Extremely low. This is why I may hire a candidate who has an undergraduate degree in French literature, for example. Or in linguistics, languages — at least something.”

Johnson was of the same opinion: “It depends who I am and how big my office is. I am in Seattle, and there is a localization community here, so I can hire someone with experience. Why should I hire someone with no background? I do not want to spend time training them. However, if I am a startup in Arizona, I am going to have to. On the other hand, Facebook does not hire anybody into its localization teams who is not experienced in localization. So it depends on who you are and where you are located.”

Alexandra and I are close to Silicon Valley where localization is “a thing,” we both go to IMUG and Women in Localization events, and we live and breathe localization. So here it’s not that easy for a complete outsider to get into the industry without any background. Maybe if we lived in another part of the country, but not in Northern California.

The recruiters’ perspective

Nimdzi Insights conducted an interesting study about hiring criteria for localization project manager positions (Figure 1). Some 75 respondents (both LSPs and clients) were asked how important on a scale of 1 to 5 a variety of qualifications are for project management positions. The responses show a few trends. Top priorities for clients are previous localization experience and a college degree, followed by years of experience and proficiency in more than one language. Top criteria for LSPs are reputation and a college degree, also followed by experience and proficiency in more than one language.

A way for Alexandra to understand the requirements would be to talk to a hiring manager. Moore is an account manager at Anzu Global, an agency that recruits for the localization industry. Though she is not a recruiter per se, she shared exactly what employers expect from potential candidates.

Moore said that clients “want a BA, but the most important thing is experience.” This is exactly what we see in Nimdzi’s diagram. “For some positions, you may become a quality assurance tester, which has very minimal requirements. This is how you start in the industry and then move to a project management or localization engineer position.”

This could be a good recommendation to Alexandra. “She might become a test lead who creates schedules and manages people, so this is more of a management kind of role. However, who knows how long it can take to get to that role.”

Moore said that when clients want to hire a localization project manager, the skills they are looking for are familiarity with computer assisted translation (CAT) tools “and an understanding of issues that can arise during localization — like quality issues, for example. Compared to previous years, more technical skills are required by both clients and vendors: CAT tools, WorldServer, machine translation knowledge, sometimes WordPress or basic engineering. When I started, they were nice-to-haves, but certainly not mandatory.”

Technical skill is not enough, however. “Both hard and soft skills are important. You need hard skills because the industry has become a lot more technical as far as software, tools and automation are concerned. You need soft skills to deal with external and internal stakeholders, and one of the main things is working under pressure because you are juggling so many things.”

Ultimately, “the client is the one who sets the requirements in their job descriptions. We then look for candidates at networking events, career fairs, LinkedIn and job boards. There is a lot of word-of-mouth as well. I go to IMUGs in Silicon Valley where people talk to me and ask if they can apply.”

Moore also mentioned some red flags that would cause Anzu not to hire a candidate. “Sometimes an applicant does not demonstrate good English skills in phone interviews. Having good communication skills is important for a client-facing position. Also, people sometimes exaggerate their skills or experience. Another red flag is if the person has a bad track record (if they change jobs every nine months, for example).”

Anzu often hires for project management contract positions in large companies. “Clients usually come to us when they need a steady stream of contractors (three or six months), then in three or six months there will be other contractors. The positions are usually project managers or testers. If you already work full-time, a contract position may not be that attractive. However, if you are a newcomer or have just graduated, and you want to get some experience, then it is a great opportunity. You would spend three, six or 12 months at a company, and it is a very good line on the résumé.”

Do you need a localization degree?

I initially wanted to see whether a degree in localization is needed today to get into the industry as a project manager, as this was one of the main questions asked by Alexandra. However, as with many other things, there is no firm answer to the question of whether or not you need a degree.

If you don’t know what you should do, it can certainly help. Troyer discussed how the localization program at MIIS has evolved to fit current real-world pressures. “The program was first started in 2004, and it started small. We were first giving CAT tools, localization project management and software localization courses. This is the core you need to become a project manager. Then the program evolved and we introduced the introduction and then advanced levels to many courses. There are currently four or five courses focusing on translation technology.” Recent additions to the curriculum include advanced JavaScript classes, advanced project management and program management. Natural language processing and computational linguistics will be added down the road. “The industry is driving this move because students will need skills to go in and localize Siri into many languages,” said Troyer.

The program at MIIS is a two-year master’s. It can be reduced to one year for those who already have experience. There are other degrees available, as well as certification programs offered by institutions such as the University of Washington and The Localization Institute.

Moore said that though a localization degree is not a must, it has a distinct advantage. A lot of students have internships that give them experience. They also know tools, which makes their résumés better fit clients’ job descriptions.

Johnson said that as with many industries, your degree gets you your first job. “Maybe later no one will care about your localization degree, but it is important at the very beginning for you to be able to start in the industry.”

However, both Troyer and Ritzdorf said you don’t necessarily need a degree. “If you have passion for languages and technology, you can get the training on your own,” said Troyer. “Just teach yourself these skills, network on your own and try to break into the industry.”

Ritzdorf was also sure that outside Silicon Valley, what’s essential is not a degree or experience, but how determined you are. “At the end of the day, if you are willing to walk into the office, introduce yourself, and be bold enough to ask for open positions, you will get a job.”

At the same time, Troyer, Johnson and Ritzdorf all indicated that hiring managers tend to hire people who have backgrounds similar to theirs. So as localization programs develop, more graduates will become hiring managers and will want to hire other graduates.

Localization for startups

Startups, of course, may treat localization differently, particularly when it comes to hiring.

“Mature companies have established processes,” said Moore. “Their departments usually know what to localize because they have to come up with the budget, the schedule and the annual plan. Everything is very methodical and planned for, whereas startups are still developing those programs. They do not have a plan about what to localize, and they are more in react mode than in planning mode. There is a big niche for consulting that educates people on localization and best practices and how to build that program from the startup base.”

“It is about the maturity level of localization within the company,” explained Troyer. “At a startup, the founders have to think about so many things, and localization is not on their radar. The best advice that I can give is to hire an internationalization engineer. This will ensure that the developers will be at least writing code that can be localized.”

Johnson had the same opinion. “Startups deal with a blank tablet. They can do whatever they want, but the decisions that you make in your first months as a startup are going to affect how well your company is going to be able to operate for the next decade. So, hire someone who knows about localization. Many clients find themselves in a situation where they want to go international, but they realize that none of their code is international. Start designing your products and services with an eye on localization and internationalization from day one.”

According to Ritzdorf, the situation is different from what it used to be. “Before, when founders said, ‘Let us create this awesome software for the market,’ by ‘the market’ they meant the US market. Nowadays millennials who start their companies and talk about ‘the market’ mean ‘the global marketplace.’”

This is because “social media has broken the boundaries. The whole idea of ‘the market’ as a global market for companies means that the demand will grow, because there is going to be more and more companies that, instead of saying ‘let us deal with internationalization when we get to it,’ say ‘who is going to be in charge of internationalization?’ from day one.”

The future of localization project management

Automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning are affecting all industries, and localization is not an exception. However, all the interviewees forecast that there will be more localization jobs in the future.

According to Johnson, there is high project management turnover on the vendor side because if a person is a good manager, they never stay in this position for more than five years. “After that, they either get a job on the client’s side to make twice as much money and have a much easier job, or their LSP has to promote them to senior positions such as group manager or program director.”

“There is a huge opportunity to stop doing things that are annoying,” said Troyer. “Automation will let professionals work on the human side of things and let the machines run day-to-day tasks. Letting the machine send files back and forth will allow humans to spend more time looking at texts and thinking about what questions a translator can ask. This will give them more time for building a personal relationship with the client. We are taking these innovations into consideration for the curriculum, and I often spend time during classes asking, ‘How can you automate this?’”

Ritzdorf predicted that “everybody’s way of working is going to change over time; it is the natural progression of everything. However, at the end of the day, people buy from people — people trust people and not the machines. So, the demand for project managers is going to increase and grow.”

Moore stated that “we have seen automation change workflows over the last ten years and reduce the project manager’s workload, with files being automatically moved through each step in the localization process. Also, automation and machine translation go hand-in-hand to make the process faster, more efficient and cost-effective.”

As far as industry visibility goes, though the industry is growing more mature and becoming more visible to outsiders, people still know little about localization. For example, Alexandra only found out about it when she started working as a tester a year ago. According to Johnson, our industry is like cyber-security: no one thinks about it until something goes wrong. “Translation and localization, by design, are not meant to be noticed. If everything goes right with translation, no one talks about it.”

Ritzdorf recalled an article by Common Sense Advisory saying that in the future, there may be a day when a position responsible for global expansion and international markets, maybe called chief globalization officer, would take its place among other C-positions alongside the CEO and CFO. However, it will not happen anytime soon.