Shifting the mindset
INTERVIEW bY CAMERON RASMUSSON
Building the Uber globalization team from the ground up.
Learning and growing every day
FAVORITE PLACE VISITED:
Paxos Island, Greece
I’ve been playing keyboard all my life. Last year I put a few songs on Spotify under my name from recorded practice sessions many years ago
When it comes to getting the job done, mindset is key. And Sasan Banava knows all about it. With almost two decades of experience in language work, he’s witnessed the transformation of the industry through technology, globalization, and increased demand. And he also noted the mindset shift that each disruption required from language professionals.
He’s applied that knowledge to decades of work with major corporations. At Uber, he established the company’s in-house localization team, building off the experience acquired at Google by localizing more than 25 product lines in over 70 languages. And now, in his role as the senior director of globalization at Square, he enables small business owners and enterprising contractors to do a little mindset shifting of their own all over the world.
You’ve had a career working in localization and globalization with major companies, including Google, Uber, and currently Square. What lessons did you learn in your various roles, and how did they lead you to your current position?
Over the past 15+ years working in the localization and globalization fields, I have learned several valuable lessons. Among these, the top three that come to mind are leadership, communication, and program management skills.
My favorite quote for leadership is from Simon Sinek, author of a few great books such as Start with Why, Leaders Eat Last, and The Infinite Game. He says, “Leadership is not about being in charge, but taking care of people in your charge.” I’ve found that in my career, great leaders universally display this attribute, and I always aim to model that. Interpersonal skills play a big role here.
Globalization teams are very diverse, so developing a strong foundation for interacting with folks from different cultures and backgrounds and ensuring your communication style and strategy are appropriate and land as intended for the recipient is vital. I’ve had my fair share of misunderstandings along the way and have learned valuable lessons. These interpersonal skills also play a key role while engaging with your internal customers. Varying your approach based on who you’re talking to, from product to engineering to marketing to customer support and legal teams, is a prerequisite to unlocking magical collaboration at a meaningful level and scale. A key recommendation is to really listen to what they need and figure out a way to meet those. This involves many negotiations as well. One book I recommend on this topic is Getting More by Stuart Diamond. We have brought him to train the whole team at various companies as your team is doing a lot of negotiations with stakeholders on deliverable scope, cost, and timelines.
As you build your team, articulating a clear vision, mission, strategy, and roadmap and getting alignment from your team and your internal partners is a high priority. Inspiring and motivating folks on a north star is necessary to gain support to reach your goals. As you move up, listening more to uncover issues and solve problems effectively is crucial.
Developing communication skills is key to a successful career in any industry. Tailoring your strategy according to what you want your audience to feel is important. Being clear, concise, and to the point is required. With executives, spend 80% of your time on solutions and only 20% on problems.
Above all, communication with empathy and compassion should be the cardinal rule. Being centered fuels empathetic communication and healthy routines (exercise, meditation, sleep, nutrition, etc.) support being centered. Ensure the words you choose and the body language you display are congruent with your message. Having a high emotional quotient (EQ) is essential. One book I highly recommend on this topic is Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine. This area has been my toughest lesson over the years.
- PROGRAM MANAGEMENT SKILL:
The core foundation of any globalization team and a key signal of how successful it will be is tied to how strong the program management skills of the team members are. Mastering program management attributes such as adaptability, navigating ambiguity, leading without authority, strategic thinking, domain expertise, and communication and leadership, as mentioned above, are key to a continued positive career trajectory.
How have you seen corporate globalization evolve over the course of your career?
Depending on which angles you take a look at, it has improved on some fronts while it has also stayed the same or gotten worse from other angles.
Areas it has improved: Globalization as an industry has matured more, technology has greatly evolved (MT, NMT, AI), companies generally understand the function better, more senior roles seem to be available on the client side than 15 years ago, and infusion of capital and talent from outside the industry has supported the overall trajectory. All of these factors contribute to a more mature, fully realized corporate globalization environment.
Areas staying the same or sometimes worse: fragmented approach in the global vendor chain, translator’s pay, re-inventing the wheel in every company, and non-experts leading the globalization efforts are some of the issues we see today that we were dealing with 15 years ago.
A major concern for localization and globalization professionals is earning a seat at the table where fundamental decisions are made, and that’s an arena in which you’ve earned much experience. Can you share some of your insights?
The biggest mindset shift is to see globalization as revenue generating vs. a cost center. Then your intention becomes guiding your C-suite to see it as well.
In order to accomplish that, first showcase operational excellence (cost, quality, speed optimizations) and demonstrate you can scale with the business and efficiently support internal partners and end-users while staying up to date with technological advancements and automation (MT, automated workflows, AI, etc). Effectively manage up, always evangelize, have a good communication strategy for various teams, meet and greet new leaders and get alignment on how you can support them. These actions, over time, will give you enough momentum to reach the C-suite.
Once you have your VMSR (vision, mission, strategy, and roadmap) in place and alignment with your organization and colleagues is completed, then start engaging senior folks to get support. Read the landscape and see what your CEO and executives are thinking about. If it’s budget management, then showcase that. If it’s quality for our products, then ensure high linguistic quality. If it’s the speed of product deployment, then ensure G11n processes are enabling that. It’s not going to be possible to do everything, so prioritize. At different stages, you may focus on different metrics. Beyond what I call “internal metrics of cost, quality, speed,” track more valuable metrics such as active users, revenue generated, and work to tie it back to globalization. Communicate all of these elements and how your organization supports various launches in a monthly newsletter to the company.
Do you think recent advances in technology and particularly the ongoing conversation around AI adoption have changed the calculus at all?
I think so. Back in 2014, Ray Kurzweil, American computer scientist, inventor, and futurist, famously said that by 2029, machines will reach human levels of translation quality. It seems we’re well on our way to that goal. ChatGPT and generative AI are the talk of the globe, and every company and leader is thinking about how to integrate it into their business and workflow. Listening to the field’s experts, it seems we’re in the midst of a watershed moment, and many industries and jobs will be disrupted in the coming years.
What are some of the main considerations you take into account when shopping for a language vendor?
Take a look at the financial health of the company, the level of services offered, technology stack, global footprint, level of engagement with the C-suite, reputation in the industry, metrics (cost, quality, speed, etc), and references. I’d like to have the attention of the vendor CEO and the vendor should be demonstrating desire to have our account. Lastly, you should pick your vendor based on company and team requirements as not every vendor is suited to do everything a client wishes.
On to current topics, how should a global company manage inclusive writing — not just in the current political climate, but also to consider other ethnic groups in remote locations?
At a minimum, any large enterprise should have a diversity and inclusion team that can set proper guidelines, policies, and best practices to be followed company-wide. At Square, we do have a corporate D&I team and strategy in place, and we ensure our brand’s tone and voice are inclusive. That is reflected in our style guides for English and other languages. One example is to not use language that may be read as condescending toward sellers of any knowledge level, experience level, or business type.
Apart from managing localization to attain corporate goals, how does Square serve its culturally diverse end users in remote areas?
Quoting from our Square “About” page, we’re a partner to sellers of all sizes — large, enterprise-scale businesses with complex commerce operations, sellers just starting out, as well as merchants who began selling with Square and have grown larger over time. Whether it’s the food truck that’s establishing a brick-and-mortar restaurant, the former sole proprietor adding her first employees, or the entrepreneur expanding from one location to 10, as our sellers scale, so do our solutions. We all grow together.
And this growth is true in more and more countries around the globe. Square supports sellers from Australia to Ireland, Canada to Japan, and across all 50 United States.
Do you have experiences to share about equal pay, or how the geolocation or economic background of a worker can affect compensation?
Some years ago I did a rate harmonization exercise with our translation and review vendors while I was at Uber. Without sharing the rates we had with each vendor for each language, we gave both vendors guidance on which languages were deviating by a large percentage above and below the baseline, so both vendors could adjust their pay rates accordingly to ensure end-translators/reviewers are compensated harmoniously. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Due to big LSPs contracting with smaller LSPs, the money doesn’t always find its way to the translators/reviewers, but overall, we received many positive remarks from end-translators/reviewers and smaller LSPs. I was able to hear this feedback directly since we also did a one-of-a-kind global summit for our lead translators/reviewers across 50 languages, paid by my team and both vendors for two years. That was a fantastic experience for everyone.
Does currency conversion pose an opportunity or a threat to global hiring?
Companies in the US generally get an annual budget in USD for headcount. We have a global team on multiple continents, so depending on how USD performs against local currencies, it can be both an opportunity and a threat.
Is the world aware enough of the environmental impact of increased online work and the use of AI? How (and why) should we set sustainability standards for ourselves?
I think these issues are coming to the surface more and more through documentaries, news articles, and social media messages. It’s critical for the survival of human beings to set up sustainable and harmonious ways of interacting with our environment. We need to do a lot more to bring awareness at a global scale.
Block recently published our 2022 corporate social responsibility report. Quoting from the report, “In 2022, we expanded our carbon removal portfolio, drove internal carbon emission reductions, and increased our climate risk and opportunity disclosures through the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), Science-Based Targets, and Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB).”
When it comes to environmental impact, Block has stated in the report that “our goal remains net zero carbon emissions by 2030 for Block’s full corporate operations footprint” and we’ll do that by measuring our global carbon footprint annually, reducing our carbon intensity across our value chains and removing all unavoidable emissions. You can read more details about the Block’s progress in the report.
Are there any books, artistic works, or leaders in business that you consider inspirational to your career decisions, or that have shaped the way you approach your work?
I have outlined several books in my answers to earlier questions, but there are tons of great books. Listing a few more here: Atomic Habits by James Clear, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Good Boss, Bad Boss by Robert Sutton, and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
What skills have you invested personal effort into that have had the greatest payoff?
First and foremost, my deep focus on continual learning and personal growth has had the greatest payoff. Never stop learning. To complement that, it is also critical to have good habits that sustain you in your life journey. Examples include, but are not limited to, devoting time to optimal fitness, nutrition, sleep, and social connections. As James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says, “You are the average of the five habits you repeat most,” and, “The most important habit is choosing the right habit to work on.”
I’m aiming to live my life similarly, to the degree possible, to the blue zones: regions in the world where people live exceptionally long and healthy lives. This has also been a good investment, which overlaps a lot with the factors stated above. Plant-slant diet, physical activity, social connections, purpose, and stress reduction are some of the hallmarks of the five blue zones, globally.
It was interesting to learn you hold a commercial pilot’s license. What role does aviation play in your life, and are there other hobbies or interests that reinvigorate and deepen your view of your work?
From aviation, I learned many skills such as situational awareness, clear communication, quick but accurate decision-making, big attention to detail, teamwork, and resilience.
Using the Japanese Ikigai concept of “reason for being,” my deep passion would be spirituality. I’ve been studying spirituality and an energy healing modality for 20+ years, and it is my goal to do an English-to-Persian translation of a book related to this topic once I retire since I barely have time for it in my life right now.
I enjoy sports activities such as running, soccer, volleyball, resistance training, skiing, hiking in nature, and camping trips. I also enjoy solving chess puzzles when I get a chance. I love reading and have been experimenting with Blinkist, an app that summarizes a book in 15 minutes, so I can listen to it sometimes while I walk during my lunch break.
Last but not least, I enjoy spending time with friends and family and love to travel. I’ve been to about 40 countries and hope to explore more!