Richard Sikes is cofounder and a principal consultant of Localization Flow Technologies. He has been immersed in localization since 1989. His current focus is on translation technologies and industry best practices. He is closely associated with Content Rules as a senior linguistic consultant.
I have had a long career in localization and translation, and I’ve had a lot of occasions to interview project managers. Of course, I ask them typical background questions just to get them talking and to get a general feel for what they are like as a person and potential team member. But where the rubber meets the interview road is my favorite question. I always preface the question by assuring the candidate that there is no wrong answer.
This is it: “You have ten units of productivity at your disposal. Productivity is defined as a total of human working hours at your disposal from all players that results in an output. You have three projects on the go, and all have the same due date. One project requires five units of productivity. One requires four units of productivity, and one requires three units of productivity. That yields a total of 12 units required, but you only have the ten. What do you do?”
The inexperienced project manager, or fresh university graduate, typically says, “I’ll work harder.” In response I say, “You can’t! Your productivity is limited to the ten units. What else can you do?” The candidate might get a little nervous now. I reassure them again, telling them that there is no wrong answer but, by the definition of the question, working harder is not an option.
So, now the candidate is forced to get a little more creative. I’ll soon find out how creative they are, or if they have faced a similar situation — which is very common in the localization industry — and had to find a solution. Localization project managers have to be innovative. They are constantly expected to produce impossible results in impossible situations. They are always under time pressure yet cannot allow quality to suffer. They must find resources which are often scarce. They need to find ways to make the impossible possible.
There are some responses that would spark my interest in them as a candidate. One might be, “I would talk with each of the three customers to see if their deadline is critical path for them, or if perhaps they would accept a partial delivery on the due date.” Another would be, “If I have to disappoint a customer and proactively ask for forgiveness to slip the due date, I would consider the standing of the relationship between that customer and our company. Have we had a history of slipped deliveries? Are they a new customer that we don’t want to disappoint, or might we possibly have some goodwill left over from past successful projects that I could draw upon?”
An innovative project manager might look at the project processes to see if there is some technological solution that could change the productivity metric. Perhaps machine translation would be acceptable to the customer for certain content types if timeliness is more important than linguistic quality. Perhaps there is a possibility to overlap project processes, for example, allowing editing of the beginning of the translated content while the translator is still working on the end of the same file. Some translation environments support simultaneous work on files by locking the content at the granular, segment level, instead of a document level.
The details of the candidate’s answer don’t matter so much, because there are many options. What does matter to me, and what I look for in the interview, is the approach to problem-solving. One of the best project managers I ever hired had no experience in translation project management whatsoever. She had just gotten laid off from a job as a buyer for a retail company when I met her on a ski trip. We were stuck on an endless car journey due to bad weather, so we talked about anything and everything. She outlined for me what she was doing about finding a new job. Again, it was her structured and innovative approach to solving her problem that impressed me. The next day, she took a rather bad fall and scraped her face up badly. She got right back up, took a couple of deep breaths, and kept on skiing. I thought, “That’s the kind of creative and resilient person that I want on my team.” I hired her shortly thereafter. She quickly learned the industry jargon. She worked for me for about four years, then went on to have a highly successful career as a contract IT project manager, working for enterprises.
It’s not what you know, it’s how you solve problems that’s the differentiator!