Inside the localization whirlwind: advice from the Director of l10n at Slack
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 have combined the interviews together with advice from our experts that have helped businesses such as Meta, Canva, Microsoft, BBC and more drive their quality strategy and grow their brand in local markets.
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Anca Greve told me that her role had changed again.
“I’m actually now managing both the localization team for Slack, and the help and learning teams,” she said.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise: Anca’s rise within Slack had been impressive. She had joined Slack as an Executive Assistant in 2015, and today is Director of Localization, taking on the l10n challenge at the moment the company needed it.
“I was lucky to work with leaders who took a chance on me,” said Anca. “It would have made sense for them to hire a person with experience. I was not that person.”
A related thought – I am a fan of Slack. It’s one of a few products which has genuinely changed the nature of work. It has transformed office culture, team structure, and collaborative work approaches. The UK’s office for national statistics says that in 2019, 12% of adults reported working from home at least once in the last week – it’s now closer to 40%. (Yes, coronavirus – but coronavirus with Slack.) Former CEO Stewart Butterfield continues to be an interesting online presence. The wallpaper of everyday office life is the former stuff of social media: threads, chats, gifs, emojis.
Today, under Anca’s leadership, all Slack content is localized such that every language has parity status. Given that Slack grew so quickly [the Salesforce acquisition price was $27.7 billion] I wanted to understand what it was like to be in a l10n department in the middle of such rapid growth.
Growing the team; the shift to engineering
First, team structure.
“The localization team is 6 people,” said Anca. “There’s three pillars in the Slack l10n team structure. Projects, quality, and technology. We partner with contractors to manage the surges.”
The team “was built to suit what Slack needed and how Slack grew. It’s more unusual to have engineers in localization. Within the tech pillar, there’s a lead developer, a senior developer, and then there’s a more junior person.”
The initial scope of the l10n was the help center. “Then, it made sense to have a lot of linguists,” said Anca. But as Slack grew, the requirements of scale required looking at process automation – and engineers.
“The technical folks are hard to find, and they can be expensive… but [their] work has paid dividends for us. We’ve estimated that we’ve saved 6,000 hours of work [per year], that’s the equivalent of three full-time employees working for a whole year. So it is worth it in the end.”
The sum of their work was an app.
“Our app is called Slack Localization,” said Anca. Neatly, it’s built into the major Slack app so that you can use Slack to localize Slack.
“The process of how we intake work, send it to our vendor, getting it back to the requestor… used to be so much more manual.” She described project managers wrangling requests and opinions across teams.
“Now, they go to the one place where they’re already doing everything else – Slack. They have templates for all the jobs they need to create and can customize them if there are specific nuances to be addressed.
“We’ve had the same pain point as lots of teams… we needed a single source of truth, a record for our work, and a shared record with vendors”, said Anca. For vendors, it would make things like billing easier.
“Every project has a dedicated thread within a Slack channel, where project managers can address comments or questions from the vendor. Project managers are notified when the project is complete, and the translations get pulled automatically to the right place – whether that’s the TMS, or an appropriate file location on G-Drive.”
Similar to Pleo, Slack has built an application where anybody can request a localization. Instead of jira, they use – you guessed it – Slack. “ You can use a slash command to request the translation from where you’re sat,” said Anca, “without leaving the channel you’re in. All of this allows us to have a pretty tight turnaround – 24-48 hours” for webapp, help content & mobile strings, says Anca,
Ensuring localization quality
That sounds like the speed was sorted. But the quality?
Anca had a framework for this too: quality could be proactive or reactive, and engineers had again paid dividends. “We have an in-house data platform,” Anca said.
”When we started, we had in-house linguists,” meaning that they could proactively check all of the translations by LSPs in-house.
“The conundrum was, how do we achieve the same quality without having an actual person?”
One answer was real-time metrics. “Our quality lead developed an error system with multiple severity levels. Our LSP translates our content, it gets reviewed by another third party, and metrics get funneled into our quality management system.”
Then there are other approaches which are proactive on the core materials and terminology levels that the tech pillar has helped with.
There’s also a smart alerts system. “If [a to-be-translated asset] contains terms that we consider part of a new feature, we will receive and alert in a quality channel – “this string contains a new term and is about to be translated, do you want to add this term to the glossary?”
“That means that some strings get checked before they get merged, and we can see whether, for example, an HTML tag is missing, or there's a formatting issue.
There’s also advice Anca gave on a pre-check level; to ensure the translation is great in the first place. For that, Anca advises getting LSPs or internal translators alike to build deep understanding of your business.
“On any given day, we need to localize a help center article, we get a random request from someone in sales who needs something [translated] right away, a marketing tagline, a web-app string.
“To survive that context-switching, you really need to be plugged into what the company needs.” They need to understand values, commercial incentives, client personas, and readership contexts of all the content – and that will drive up the quality of the first draft of the work.
Looking back: localization at slack
Anca doesn’t remember the day she formally started doing localization work. “We knew that people were starting to use Slack outside of the US… I ended up translating the Help Center into French.”
“I’m not a native French speaker… we talk about imposter syndrome, I felt like I was going to get fired every day.”
But then after they had localized and launched, ”we did German next. Then we did Japanese, Spanish…”
And eventually, Anca was simply the head of localization, in fact and then in title. Next was tooling, workflow, team structure. “I kept proving myself, taking on more work. Maybe they just thought “she’s figuring it out. Let’s keep it going.”
I asked whether Slack still had the same magic in 2023 that it used to.
“The product we use every day helps us retain that,” said Anca. I think it’s helped us retain some of this “let’s figure it out together” mindset.”
“Let’s figure it out together” sounded like what had enabled Anca to advance her career, and to some extent, enabled Slack’s success. It also sounded very Slack – like Slack’s main export to the thousands of businesses that choose to use it. The effect of having a tool which is radically easier to use than email is that the amount of collaboration increases.
“I think we underestimate how much time is taken up by the fact we have to explain things and answer questions”, Anca had said.
“A Slack loops very quickly,” she said. “I read something online – somebody was saying that they checked off a to-do item when they replied to an email.” Annoyingly, the person emailed back. “That put it back on the to-do list!” Anca’s point was that that individual was task oriented and not outcome oriented.
“We have learned to live in this constant stream of information, to prioritize what we know is important for the business, because sometimes everything is very urgent. “
“The mission of the company is to make people’s working life simpler, more pleasant, more productive,” said Anca. “I find that very inspiring.”