Managing Your Localization Career: Internationalization (I18N) Engineering


white mug on a wooden table

“A misplaced decimal point will always end up
where it will do the greatest damage.”
- Unknown

One of the more specialized positions in the localization industry is the internationalization (I18N) engineer. This role is not as common as others, but I18N engineers are becoming increasingly in demand as they play an important role in any organization supporting successful localization with proactive measures.

Note: In case you were wondering, I18N and L10N are industry abbreviations for internationalization (I + 18 letters + N) and localization (L + 10 letters + N) respectively.

I18N practices, when supported by an organization as a whole, are put in place as an attempt to do what is needed to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the localization process. I18N is a preemptive initiative by a company or organization like software engineering or product development will prescreen for localization pertinent features, functions, content, code and other information in order to design for localization in advance.

I18N came about after what seemed like eons of suffering by localization departments and LSPs who were constantly challenged to work around coding and development issues that did not take into account the complexities of localization when they were being built. When localization was not considered, programs were put at risk, time was wasted, and sometimes things shipped to market without being properly localized. There were costly and frustrating results and the issues continued to cause problems. Eventually the concept of I18N emerged. By deciding to consider localization up front, the chances of unexpected surprises, roadblocks, hiccups, and errors in localization dramatically decreased. I18N is a very popular and successful when executed correctly.

Some samples of I18N issues relate to code and language switching, font and Unicode enablement, global date and time formats, support of LTR (left to right) languages. They can be about accounting for the expansion of translated text, using universally understood symbols and graphics, and avoiding key faux pas like slang or culturally sensitive (or insensitive) content or imagery and avoiding the use of untranslatable elements in the program or code.

I18N engineering services can be provided by a LSP to their client companies, or a company may decide to hire a specialized I18N engineer to be part of the technical or localization engineering team internally.

One of the major responsibilities of a I18N engineer inside a company is to work with engineering and product development organizations to understand the development lifecycle. They will need to work deeply and collaboratively within a program and technical development team or teams in order to communicate important – but likely misunderstood or unfamiliar - concepts to a large group of technical developers and managers in ways everyone can understand. They will work in high-pressure and fast-paced environments in the most effective – but least disruptive – way to achieve the greatest success.

How does someone get into I18N engineering?

I18N is pretty specialized and would require some training. It would be a natural add on skillset for any localization or front-end software development engineer.

What kind of experience or skills should I have?

Ideally speaking a successful I18N engineer will have had experience working in a software development program as a team member or leader. Having a solid understanding of end-to-end program development processes will allow the I18N the appropriate kind of exposure to know when to step in and speak up about I18N issues in a manner and language the overall team will understand and respond to.

Who might find internationalization (I18N) engineering challenging?

Technical folks who like to focus deeply on problems and prefer to work independently may find this role to be challenging, mostly because I18N engineering requires a lot of communication, collaboration, and big picture thinking. Also those who do not understand the complexities of software development and localization may find it difficult to explain or discuss the complex technical topics that need addressing.