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Embedding Internationalization Into Corporate Thinking

By: Youngmin Jeong (NetApp) - NetApp

05 December 2013

In the early 90’s, I got started with product localization. Perhaps I was lucky that my first localization job was at Sun Microsystems because we had a clear mandate from the top to “internationalize” all our products from the get-go. (I was told there were 18 letters between the “i" and “n” in “internationalization,” and I counted them myself, just to be sure.)

We didn’t need to justify the return on investment on i18n or evangelize the need for it; it was simply part of our DNA.  So we were able to focus on how to release a quality localized product in a timely manner. And we strove for execution excellence.  

As lucky as we were at Sun, I realized that not all software companies have reached the point of accepting internationalization as an executive mandate. If you are lucky enough to be in a company like that, you may be wondering, “How hard can it be?”  After all, surely everyone sees the benefits immediately. How could anyone say no to such great benefits?  There is industry-proven ROI data that demonstrates how incorporating product internationalization at the optimum stage of the development cycle (during the development phase) saves millions of dollars.  And in the current global economy, most companies generate a large amount of their revenues from abroad. Sadly, though, this view is not prevalent in many companies.

So, if you find yourself in a company where they are still learning how to spell “internationalization,” here are three suggestions that could help you secure an i18n program by executive mandate, or internationalize applications in the absence of that mandate.

#1- Get middle management alignment and buy-in:  Make sure you have buy-in from all levels of management as well as the executives and the people on the ground that will be doing the work. If you can’t get the executives to mandate internationalization, talk with your peers or front-line managers. Most likely they will have some experience with it at a previous company.

>> In one company, I had the buy-in of the group’s vice president, as well as the coders, so I was sure that was all I needed to get started.  But I was wrong. I think the reason the program didn’t move forward was that I didn’t understand how important the role of middle management is in the process. They hadn’t been consulted at all and questioned who I was to use their resources.

The team had competing priorities and other deliverables to meet.  And the individuals I was working with, the VP and the coder, didn’t manage them.  I should have been talking directly to their manager.  In my experience, middle management’s buy-in supports collaboration and better team dynamics. Middle-level management alignment is one of the keys to internationalization project success.  So strive to work with middle managers and executives alike. You’re going to need them both to work with the coders.

#2 – Deal with the fear factor head-on: Don’t underestimate the power of the fear that first timers may experience. After all, this is uncharted territory for many.  

>> The first time through the internationalization process with a new group is always the hardest. Because of their lack of experience with internationalization, there are lots of “What if?” and “How do you…?” questions.  Answering these questions and proving facts will eat up many hours.  The project may get stalled and seem to be going nowhere for a while. But don’t despair! It’s important to slow down, explain, and evangelize. It’s ok to answer questions. The more you explain, the faster that fear will go away!

At the root of all those questions and information requests is a fear of doing something they’ve never done before.  It may not be real issues that you see in those bug reports.  It may be that teams don’t recognize or are unwilling to admit that they are fearful.

Because of my earlier positive experiences at Sun, I didn’t know how to deal with this “first-timer fear”. Looking back, it’s clear that I should have tried to understand their concerns better.  Ultimately, I managed to do that by putting myself in the shoes of a first-timer and remembering how apprehensive I was when I first heard about i18n, double-byte, multi-bytes, conversion, and so on.

My advice to anyone working with teams that have never done internationalization before is to spend more time up front educating the team and management on what i18n and l10n are.  It may also be useful to bring in an outside, neutral party or vendor to meet with them, face-to-face if possible, and talk about key topics and issues that may arise.  Your goal is to make them feel comfortable working with you and gain their trust; then they will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when they are unsure or fearful. If you build trust and confidence with the team first, the work you do together will be more productive and collaborative, rather than combative.

#3 – Be Persistent: You may lose patience at times, but never give up!

>>Internationalization and localization may not be the top priority at some companies. Undoubtedly you will hear many reasons why they can’t and won’t internationalize.  Their own concerns may completely overpower your message about the savings and revenues that product internationalization generates.  While it may seem some people are not ready for internationalization, you need to keep moving forward.

This is like many things in life, I suppose.  As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”  However, your task is to make the product teams ultimately “drink” in the wisdom of internationalization.  It might test your patience, but don’t give up. Keep showing up, knocking on doors and talking patiently. Eventually, you will get enough critical mass to move forward.   

A vice president once told me that my goal was to get invited to their dinner table.  I took his advice to heart and ever since then I have made it my mission to get a seat at the dinner table.

Some of the things you can do to build up your relationship with reluctant groups include sending check-in emails on a regular basis to see how they are doing and sharing conversations that you or someone on your team has had with your partners or customers in different countries about the need for product localization in their locales.

If you are working with various product teams at your company, share your first successes, even if they are small. This may give the reluctant team confidence in the process, as well as provide peers for them to consult with.  I also recommend inviting them to workshops and asking them to be part of the great success story that you are trying to build for your company. These success stories can be an inspiration that will help them see for themselves how internationalization can be done successfully.

Once you start doing these things on a regular basis, every time they see you, they’ll start thinking about internationalization, even if you don’t say a word.  I have personally seen the fruits of this hard work in different scenarios and companies.

Not that long ago, a group I had been trying to engage for a while without much success  came to me with the great news that  their new version was internationalized;  then they asked me to assess what they had done.  Although, they were still hesitant to fully commit to working with us, they were sniffing around the water and were thinking about tasting it. Success!

Change takes time. After a while, groups will ask you for help, and when they come, be ready! Once a team commits to internationalization, new challenges such as legacy code, resources, training needs, budget, and schedule will crop up. The good news is that you have already motivated them to drink the water.  When that happens, be proud and ready to show what you can do and how you can help them finally quench their i18n thirst.

Youngmin Jeong is a passionate globalization professional with over 20 years of experience in product globalization and globalization systems. She currently works for NetApp, managing a globalization architecture and engineering group providing strategic and technical solutions for the company to go global faster and further. Prior to that Youngmin worked at Sun Microsystems as a globalization architect.