This is a part of a series of interviews about localization and internationalization which spans thought leaders from Shopify, HubSpot, and Google, among others. We will be combining the interviews together with advice from our experts that have helped businesses such as Meta, Canva, Microsoft, BBC and more drive their localization strategy and grow their brand in local markets.
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In California, it’s 9AM, and the Head of Internationalization and Design Program Management at Pinterest does not share my indecision over coffee.
“I don't drink coffee,” said Francesca Di Marco, who is Italian. “I never drink coffee, and that’s probably the reason I had to leave my country.”
I had been expecting someone serious: really, Francesca is very funny. Which belies an impressive career: Francesca Di Marco has lectured in Stanford, Perugia, and the University of London. She has lived in Tokyo, London, San Francisco. She has founded a business. She has worked at Twitter, and now Pinterest. Some of the other interviewees had heard of her.
“I have a big team of program managers, who either do internationalization or design program management,” she said. “I’ve reached 6 years now, so I’m super loyal.”
“To scale operations globally. The real challenge is managing the supply chain, execution on project management, and mitigating risk,” said Francesca.
At Pinterest, Francesca had built a machine – and I wanted to understand how it worked.
From Localization 101 to present-day
First, Pinterest. The stats – there’s 450 million monthly active users on Pinterest, 75% of whom are outside the US. There’s 200 countries and territories.
“Our mission is to bring everyone the inspiration to create a life they love,” said Francesca. “No matter what country these users live in, we want to ensure that everyone finds inspiration on Pinterest.”
And the internationalization team?
“Basically takes care of all the international assets, regardless of the stakeholders. That can be user generated content, legal content, UI strings, offline.”
“My team is composed of 3 pods, and I have senior managers who manage their own LPM [localization project manager].
“One pod works on product internationalization which means international product UI strings. We are responsible for the health of our international builds so we do functional and linguistic QA on our core product and features. We internationalize the UI, the iconography if needed, taxonomy, and so forth.
“I have a team working on Pinterest scaled platforms. So they translate, internationalize the Pinterest websites. That includes the Business Site, the Help Centre, educational platforms, and seasonal websites.
“We also serve the marketing and sales org … our responsibility is to make sure international users are represented in our narratives globally.”
So that’s the realized vision – but how had Francesca reached it?
“The journey to maturity happened in three steps. At the beginning, it was just myself and a tester. We began to provide linguistic support services, translation, and QA.
“I still have a localization pipeline, and my stakeholders still send me translation requests – I can respond with the localized assets.”
“The second stage was that we identified localizable elements versus non-localizable elements” said Francesca, across the whole estate. “I brought the localizable assets under my control – so international libraries, product strings.”
“The third stage was to do a better job with the non-localizable assets; to build out the kind of narratives that we’re building for the US market but not international markets.”
That was the hardest part. “We’d work with the analysts… so I’d work with our team of [business] analysts and ensure they had analysts dedicated to international.” Then, based on international sentiment analysis, “we’d have to persuade our PMs [Product Managers] to develop one feature rather than another.”
It sounded like Francesca had built an enormous coalition to do the job of internationalizing.
“We partnered with local teams and teams across the company to understand their needs. Local teams lamented the fact that our narratives were very US-centric. But we also have limited resources.”
“So we ran a number of pilots on some specific programs – we hired copywriters, put together a workflow, so that we’re able to create native content. Now we create native content for 10 markets.
That was a recipe for the localization department that exists today.
We can help you drive localization as a key initiative aligned to your business goals
Mananging your stakeholders
It sounded exhausting, I said, influencing so many different teams like that. Some interviewees – in particular, Oleksandr from Shopify – had pushed very hard to build a team of 8 engineers which belonged to the localization department itself.
‘I don’t know if it’s advice that’s going to work universally,” said Francesca. “But for me, what worked really well was pioneering with our stakeholders.’
‘You might be tempted to ask for more heads in your team. But actually – what you need is international engineers, who need to sit in the engineering org. And you need international analysts, who need to sit within the analyst team. And maybe you need designers – but they need to be in line with their relevant pockets of the company’.
‘It depends on the size of the company… we were growing exponentially. So I could have hired an engineer, but at some point they would have been moved under the eng org. I liked having a small team, so they can be totally hands on – a team of program managers, who build bridges with stakeholders – because what you’re really trying to do is to embed localization within the company.”
The other key element, said Francesca, was data.
“Sometimes, you have access to very little data in localization. Dashboards are built by the US teams for the US teams. So if you manage to have access to an international dashboard, that’s going to advocate for your initiatives.”
Start with sentiment analysis, suggested Francesca. “When I have [the NPS] for all the markets I’m serving, I can finally start to speak the same language that a PM is speaking. I can corroborate my strategic instinct… if you ask to develop a feature, the data has to corroborate what you’re asking for.”
Francesca argued that there’s ways of influencing go-to-market. “The actual decision [to launch in a market] might be made at a higher level, so if you want to have that strategic presence in the company, your language strategy must entail something else.”
“You could [argue to] invest in content safety in an unmanaged market – or we could help define the legal policy for data compliance in a high-risk market. We might suggest an ad hoc [built from scratch; non-localized] app for a market where the infrastructure is poor, but which is a big market. There’s a lot you can do to help other teams manage risk, and it depends on how much you want to step up and do that kind of work.
Then you have to go back to that question – is this someone I should have on my team or in the marketing team? Those are all southern lights that are extremely important to grow your international product.
“There is probably nobody else who does it for international markets on your business side. You can gear up, start making recommendations.”
Should inclusivity be international?
Going forward, then. Are things changing?
Francesca tells me that Pinterest has always believed that inclusivity is a core part of their mission. As Francesca described, “If people can’t see themselves or be themselves on the platform, how could we ever bring everyone — everyone — the inspiration to create a life they love”? This has been never been more real for companies as they navigated through the last few years of social unrest and an entire pandemic.
But, the implementation of cultivating inclusivity is, of course, more challenging than said. One such challenge is building with inclusivity and accessibility in mind.
(The jargon – “Accessibility” generally refers to catering to impaired or disabled users in content, which in practice means working to the world content accessibility guidelines. This is to do with things like color contrast, screen readers, and accessibility testing. “Inclusivity”, Francesca defined for me: “a form of communication that avoids using words, expressions, or assumptions that would stereotype what they mean or exclude people based on their age, religion, ethnicity, and so forth.” )
Is localization a logical place to put inclusivity and accessibility?
“For sure”, said Francesca decisively. “We can create linguistic assets with the US writing team.. how do you translate that into an international style guide? And how do you scale the operations? And how do you strike the right balance between inclusivity and accessibility?
There are measures they could choose to take where a trade off is required, pointed out Francesca. “In German you can use a star key to make [the language] gender neutral.” But certain screen readers for users who need the page text in audio can’t parse that, much less say it aloud. “All of these are new challenges”.
How do you make the call between fast and quality releases?
“That’s a good question. It’s tech, so everything was supposed to be done yesterday. You’re constantly catching up and that feeling of urgency is constantly there. But some decisions are very delicate.
“At times I can be bold, at other times, I must be cautious – when we rolled out inclusive language, I didn’t want to mess up.”
“The quality assurance steps are different based on the nature of the content. Some content is user generated, or product UI, or event for our marketers and advertisers. There, our content has to be extra polished.
I asked Francesca for advice for a localization manager on the same career path as she has had.
“The advice I wish I’d had was to dedicate lots of time and effort to listening to, and meeting, your stakeholders. Understand their pain points… also asking, if you had a magic wand, how would you change the international product? I like that question.”
She had left an open goal: a final, unanswered question.
“If you had a magic wand,” I asked –
Francesca thought about it for a second.
“What I would like to be able to build, one day… is really a process where it’s so clear the fine line between what you can automate, and where you have to be more artisanal. It would be great one day to be able to build a process where you know exactly where AI can help you.”
I think that might change a lot in the next few years: it sounds like the next chapter of localization is well underway.