The changing scope of enterprise localization management

For many members of the language industry around the world, it’s a career objective to one day run global localization strategy for a major international brand.

However, the career path to securing a leading client-side localization position is not always clearly defined, and there is often little guidance available for ambitious professionals seeking to understand the skills and experience necessary to succeed in this employment sector.

Life on the buyer and vendor sides of the language industry can be very different, and a range of technological and commercial factors continue to change both the function and scope of corporate language teams.

So what does it take to thrive as an enterprise localization manager in today’s business climate?

I spoke with four industry experts who lead localization for global brands across a variety of market sectors, exploring their career trajectories and how they believe the role and skill set of an enterprise localization manager is evolving. 

Many paths to entry

Each of our discussion partners found their way into the localization space in different ways, but all were based around a fascination with the intersection between language and business.

How did you get started?

Fahel: My background is in international business and global digital marketing, and my story with localization began in the early 2000s. I happened into it because I speak several languages regularly in my daily life. Back then, I was working on a global deal that ended up requiring translations for compliance purposes. (Yes, planning without localization in mind was common even back then!)

I started researching contractors and was surprised to learn that localization was a 40-billion-dollar industry with actual agencies of all shapes and sizes. Also, the scope of the work went way beyond word translations. Learning more and more about localization seemed to support my daily work and broaden my spectrum, especially in areas of digital and compliance. I was enjoying it more and more, and I got hooked. So, I decided to pursue graduate studies in localization at Kent State University, and then took on project manager and localization manager services roles with different agencies around the United States.

After years of working on the language service provider (LSP) side of the business, large and small, a great opportunity surfaced with Harley-Davidson. I obviously did not think twice about joining one of the most powerful brands in the world.

What made the opportunity even more exciting was that the role required developing a localization capability from the ground up. Harley-Davidson operated with a progressive and innovative mindset that perceived localization as a major need to support international growth. This is a rare quality in the corporate and manufacturing world. I was also ready to move to the buyer’s side of the business, and today after five years working with Harley-Davidson, I can confidently say that it was my best career decision yet. 

McLoughlin: I’ve been in the industry for my entire career, spanning over 20 years, and come from a non-technical background with a degree in classics. I began as a freelance translator working between English and Italian, then in the late 1990s started working for Sail Labs in Barcelona as a lexicographer building bilingual dictionaries for rules-based machine translation (MT) engines. In 2001 I moved to Amikai and continued to be involved in the machine translation space, implementing best-of-breed solutions for city governments to create bilingual websites.

After a short spell back in freelance translation, I was hired in 2007 by Yahoo! in Sunnyvale as terminology manager. By 2008 I had moved into project management and gained a certification from The Localization Institute. Within Yahoo! I was a part of various teams, sometimes working with the central organization developing best practices, other times decentralized embedded in product teams, including the localization of Yahoo! Mail into 70+ languages.

By 2012 I found myself looking for a new challenge. I had built a lot of valuable experience at Yahoo! and was drawn to the community of startups just beginning to figure out internationalization and localization. I joined Eventbrite initially as a program manager, and now lead localization efforts company-wide, including product, marketing and legal. In that time, Eventbrite has grown to over 1,000 full-time global employees.

Flournoy: I first found out about the language industry when I read an article about MT in Time magazine in the 1980s as a freshman in college, and I was riveted. I don’t come from the human translation field, either educationally or professionally — I started as a researcher in MT and it has always remained my first love.

I worked at a couple of startups developing MT engines, then I joined Yahoo! which had recently acquired the first online machine translation portal, BabelFish (named after The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) through the purchase of AltaVista. As product manager, I led the integration of Babelfish with Yahoo!’s suite of products, such as toolbars and search. From Yahoo! I moved to Adobe, working on MT in the globalization group – this gave me some exposure to translation memory systems (WorldServer) and the wider translation workflow.

I joined Etsy to concentrate on MT, focused primarily on the end user experience and integrating MT with customer-facing features.

Duran: I started my career as a software developer in the banking industry and transitioned to program management with a focus on document management and workflows. I left banking to join an enterprise resource planning software company. Within a few months I was asked to manage the project management office for that company, which included localization — it did help that I had a master’s in foreign language education and linguistics.

Shortly after that I began leading the entire localization team: engineering, technical publications, quality and translation.

Subsequently I have led teams of up to twenty permanent staff managing globalization and localization programs for Adobe and Workday before moving to Spartan Software, a provider of custom software solutions and consulting services for translation and localization organizations.

A broad skill set

The role of leading global content for an enterprise brand means engaging and collaborating with a wide variety of stakeholders — what are the key skills a translation or localization manager needs in order to succeed?

Fahel: I would love for the industry to move away from the misconception that having an IT background or a translation degree are key qualifications for a localization manager. The necessary skills depend on the specific business environment they’re in. In-depth localization expertise is obviously the key base, but it has to pair with many other skills to ensure success.

If you are moving from the seller to the buyer’s side of the business, a “mental switch” is needed. When I talk to people who are coming in-house from an agency background, for instance, a lot of my conversation with them revolves around the difference between recommending a solution and having to bear accountability for a decision. When you’re an account manager at an agency, if your client doesn’t do the right thing for the brand, then that’s their fault.  When you are the client, it’s your fault.  It’s a big mental shift that people coming into a client-side role need to be aware of.

In my case, it was crucial to understand the motorcycling landscape and the company’s strategy and goals in order to develop a localization infrastructure that aligns with them. 

Every day on the job, I have the chance to couple my expertise with an American icon with 115 years of history. This privilege, however, comes with a great responsibility. I’m ultimately accountable for bridging linguistic and cultural gaps with our global riders and dealers who live and breathe our brand every day — and it can be a large part of their own personal identity.

Harley-Davidson is not a classic “global” company, it’s an American icon going global. Therefore, my priority was to navigate linguistic and cultural waters while preserving the American heritage so central to our brand. It was also extremely important to ensure that my team operates with the same mindset.

Interpersonal skills and the ability to manage up are also a must. In a corporate environment, you may not have the opportunity to report to a leader or work with stakeholders with a localization background, so the burden lies on the localization manager to educate, handhold and tell a compelling story in order to earn trust and support.

You also have to give up localization buzzwords like ICR, LSP, fuzzy match, MT and so on, as stakeholders are only interested in quality deliverables, not the process of how you and your team got there.

McLoughlin: A core skill set for any localization professional working in a high-growth environment includes understanding how to be lean, adaptable and automate processes.

With Eventbrite growing significantly in headcount during my tenure, we do agile localization as much as possible. A company’s own infrastructure and growth is not always optimized for best-practice localization methodologies, and the team needs to be able to deal with that. We work with three different content management systems supporting 1,000 employees across 14 offices with a team of just three permanent staff — ten years ago it would have taken a team of eight or more to handle the same workload.

It’s also important for localization managers to approach their work with the correct mentality, and ensure that this is embraced by their team. Yes, localization is a service, but it’s not a cost center. It’s a partnership, and overall company success is directly tied to localization success.

Viewing the localization function in this wider business context is crucial for effective collaboration. For instance, at Eventbrite we choose not to outsource a lot of linguistic QA for key content to avoid time-consuming disputes between different translators. Instead, if a market is important enough the company will establish a regional office hub and we will work with in-market copywriters to ensure the top 10-20% of content gets the white glove treatment, especially high-touch areas such as landing pages or payment. This is not part of the localization department’s reporting structure, but understanding Eventbrite’s growth pattern enables us to partner effectively.

Flournoy: In a localization role focused on a customer-facing eRetail platform, the most important thing is trying to understand what users in different countries want in their localized experience. When we talk about localization we mean it in the broadest sense of the word – an adaptation of the entire product offering to make the experience as local as possible.

This can mean understanding what users in different countries want to see in their search results, infrastructure items such as address library formatting, or ensuring that currency displays correctly for every combination of languages and currency we support.

There’s a fundamental shift in this type of work from traditional localization project management, where the focus tends to be on processes and operations. There needs to be some critical, meta-level thinking — not just asking “what do I need to build by when?” but asking “why are we building this?”

If someone is interested in switching from traditional localization project management work to internationally-focused product management, and they have not been in an environment where you’re starting with a business goal and figuring out how to get there, it can be a challenge.

When recruiting for my team, I’ll often ask candidates how they prioritize their roadmaps. For product managers, the hope is that they start with reasoning from first principles, but often a traditional localization background trains people to expect to be given priorities from other groups or outside sources.

Duran: A localization manager needs to have diverse skills covering four critical areas: customer relationships, stakeholder relationships, team management and business operations. Relationship-building and strong communication skills are critical as localization is still a people-oriented business.

In terms of technical skills, a localization manager needs to appreciate the foundational issues of language and linguistics. You don’t need to be fluent in more than English, but you do need to appreciate the unique linguistic challenges of translation. If you’re dealing with software or complex content, you need to understand the challenges and best practices for internationalization and globalizing content. A working familiarity with translation tools — computer-assisted translation tools, translation management systems, MT and so on — is a must.

Regarding business operations, most of the details of localization can be learned on the job, but having good business acumen is often more important as localization is an expense that needs to be rationalized in terms of return on investment, then explained and defended to stakeholders and executive management.

Finally, I don’t think anyone can be a good localization manager without an intrinsic interest in culture, language and the craft of localization. You need to have a passion for the field and enjoy educating others about it in order to persist through obstacles as your stakeholders and customers often do not understand the complexities involved.

A role in evolution

Trends and pressures driven by technology innovation and changing consumer behavior are redefining the role of an in-house localization manager. How is the role evolving, and what changes can we expect in the future?

Fahel: The answer depends on each company’s localization maturity and their needs for international growth. Is the company looking for a small internal agency to handle its ad hoc translation requests? If yes, then the translation manager’s role is limited to operations, and there may not be much growth opportunity. Is the company looking to establish a shared-service capability that supports and integrates with global operations? If yes, then the role will start as operational and evolve to strategic.

As well as staying current with market trends, localization managers can also drive their careers by creating the opportunity themselves. You have to understand your business, look for efficiencies that may not be visible to the leadership and present business cases that support the business. With that, you’ll be carving yourself a role that underscores your forward-thinking and agility in responding to business needs. 

When I started with Harley-Davidson, I laid out a strategy that was built around the company’s wider goals, and we were able to expand accordingly with minor fine-tuning. For example, as shared in recent press releases, Harley-Davidson plans to increase international sales 50% every year, so our localization efforts are naturally growing and my role is changing.

McLoughlin: In the last five years the biggest change I’ve seen has been the amount of data that’s available and the way this is shaping the metrics that companies need to focus on when evaluating localization performance.

Ten years ago people’s focus was on number of errors, or whether or not style guides had been correctly followed. These were linguistic metrics, things that were only interesting to the localization team. While that remains important, the evolution in maturity means that localization groups realize they are no longer a silo — in fact, they’re one of the most cross-functional teams you can think of.

The challenge for localization managers is how to tie your goals into other teams’ metrics. For me, that’s meant enhancing my expertise in areas such as digital marketing. Alongside traditional localization metrics, we’re now looking at conversion rates, Google Analytics and A/B testing different copy variants on localized sites.

Increasingly, localization teams are going to have to be more data driven and produce meaningful numbers – and that may not be lowering a per-word rate with a vendor, but demonstrating, for instance, “how did we contribute to the overall success of the German market?”

I’m lucky to work with great colleagues who are strong in this area, and it’s a key requirement when hiring in our team — can people read data, conduct a meaningful analysis and tell a story that shows progression?

Flournoy: From my perspective, one of the biggest changes in the translation industry in the last five or ten years has been the move away from massive user guides and monolithic software releases every 18 months. Instead, continuous release and embedded documentation is becoming the norm, and short-form translation is becoming more important. This brings with it changes in the way localization teams need to both work and be structured.

There is also a growing awareness among international brands that focus should be on overall user experience. Localization isn’t just about translating strings, it’s about taking a broader view of the end user’s interaction with a brand at every touch point. 

It’s also important to stay up-to- date with the growth and development of machine translation. With AI in general, there’s a truism that the definition of AI is “whatever is a bit more difficult than what we can do now.” In the 1970s playing chess was considered an example of AI, but as soon as a computer could beat a human at chess it was dismissed as not being “real” artificial intelligence. The next goal was a voice assistant — now we have Amazon Alexa and Google Home, and people say it’s just pattern matching. MT has followed a similar path. There were always fields that were considered beyond MT, such as legal, literature and e-commerce. Now patent and legal use MT all the time, and Etsy is proof of successful ecommerce deployment. While it’s gratifying to see things come true that were once considered impossible, getting the best out of MT is a matter of redefining expectations. In an ecommerce environment, it’s used as a tool to allow people to make comparisons and decisions, but it doesn’t yet pass the Turing test.

Duran: One notable shift is that most in-house localization managers directly manage far fewer people than in the past. More often they are managing a vendor relationship, so rather than being a linguistic expert themselves and managing other linguists, people need to be able to set criteria for success, monitor performance, enforce accountability and generally work with vendors in a close partnership.

In order to stay relevant in the industry, an in-house translation or localization manager needs to stay current in the latest translation technology (neural MT, machine learning), constantly seek to add value to the customer experience (this doesn’t just mean linguistic quality) and become more of a strategic partner in the business rather than an operation.

Big data and AI are transforming the translation industry, and the localization manager of the future must embrace a more data driven, automated operation and find a way to thrive by adding strategic value to their organizations.