Building the team for your business; 3 tips for localization teams from Shopify
Around the world in 7 localization interviews
Hello reader! This interview is part of the series around the world in 7 localization interviews, in which I’ll talk to the world’s top figures in localization and try to understand their businesses.
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Oleksandr Pysaryuk, Senior Localization Operations Lead at Shopify
Shopify is a fascinating business. By building a platform ruthlessly focused on usability, the ecommerce platform has positioned itself as the obvious choice for new online merchants (and for many established ones) including the famous YouTuber Mr Beast.
In November 2021 they hired Oleksandr Pysaryuk to help with their internationalization infrastructure and tooling. Shopify is a user-first company; and I was keen to hear about how that translated to user-first approach to localization.
After all, the first thing Oleks had told me was that the biggest mistake new localization managers make is to fail to adjust their team enough.
Often, said Oleks, ‘managers want to do things the right way. The localization way. But you’re hired and paid to do things for a business. Observe. Sit and watch your users. Is your organization driven by engineering? By product? Is your CEO an engineer or a marketer?’
Tip 1: follow the topline incentives of your business
It turned out that Oleksandr had followed his own advice during his previous job, running a new localization function at Ceridian.
In 2018, Ceridan had transformed. The business was originally specialized in delivering US payroll, but it had recently created a broader HR SaaS offering which needed localization.
“Their new product included talent management – recruiting, onboarding, compensation management, there was HR modules, workforce planning, scheduling…. calculating pay for thousands of employees at airports, ski resorts. Not simple.”
The approach had to be brisk and practical. In the case of Ceridian, ‘[users] don’t need to be inspired by language when the app is used,’ he said. ‘The business needed the product to focus on the problems that customers have. Not the best quality translation, or the best user interface.’
So for his team, ‘I was thinking about a product management framework.’ This had to sit alongside existing localized product management. ‘There were already product managers for payroll for Germany that develop Germany-specific features’, said Oleksandr.
‘I began to work on the underlying software structure: internationalization work. How do you develop a database, or structure code logic, that displays differently around the world?”
That enabled Oleks to build a team of eight, which he had had to fight for.
Internationalization developers cut different figures to localization engineers. No file formatting or TMS filters. ‘They wouldn’t know what that stuff was. They built internationalization libraries and advised departments on how to refactor their code safely.’
‘My team was a stakeholder, an expert advisor, on i18n, for code, for other engineering teams – my team would show them how to do things, and create tools, APIs, and libraries, so that those teams and their products just work.’
‘I built the department the businesses needed.’
Tip 2: speak the languages of different teams
Wasn’t that unusual? I had thought of “localization” teams as more front-end oriented, more focused on product and project management.
‘I used to say that it was atypical… that I’d built a team counterintuitively,’ said Oleksandr. ‘I have noticed in the past few years, that internationalization has been coming onto the radar of localization managers & directors interested in scale.’
‘It was a common thing a while ago to say that localization and development had a gap, and we needed to bridge the gap’ said Oleks. ‘Well, I built the bridge’.
Even for himself, Oleksandr had had to bring his translation acumen into his management across teams. Another piece of advice: ‘learn the language of your internal customers. I had a misunderstanding that lasted for months. I spoke to engineers, and I told them that hard coding is bad. They told me that’s how they had always worked.’
‘But had I asked for more clarification about what they meant, I’d have realized that they. had been hard coding… into resource files.” Which was exactly what Oleks thought he had been asking them for.
‘That’s not hard code from a localization perspective, how we learn it. But it’s how they spoke. There’s tons of similar situations when we just need to ask deeper questions, demystify any assumptions, and achieve utmost clarity .’
This had prompted Oleks to think flexibly about the way he hired, too. Oleksandr required hiring a program manager without any kind of localization background.
‘Maybe she has an MBA in product, in program management or a PMP certification… projects like building an Olympic Village. Rather than translating a thousand words, a candidate who has project managed building a stadium.’
Tip 3: convey success in your businesses’ language
Shopify is different to Ceridian. ‘At Shopify, we are merchant-obsessed, customer-obsessed. Our software needs to be very intuitive, very commerce-focused, very problem or solving-oriented for the merchant persona. So it's hugely engineering-focused but in a way that's absolutely 100% merchant-obsessed.’
I asked Oleks about how he conveyed the ROI of his team to the business.
‘Return on investment is… elusive,’ said Oleksandr. ‘Everybody says that there’s a formula. At Ceridian, I had a friend who worked on our ROI presentations which we gave to new clients.’... ‘Find that partner in your organization who can teach you about ROI. You probably didn’t go to school for finance.’
There’s also ways of talking which helps to convey your language.
‘Talk like your organizational language. If it’s product and technology obsessed, you should create a roadmap. You should never shut up about the roadmap. You believe in it, and people see that you believe in it, and it starts making sense.’
Then there’s the decisions around how to build the team as a unit, pointed out Oleksandr. ‘When I was at [a startup], we were acquired twice, and I was always looking at building things with eye on a potential acquisition or exit…You’ll either end up with a bunch of tangled processes that nobody can inherit, or you’ll build a machine which runs smoothly that’s easy to inherit.’
‘Big localization teams, they have product managers, engineers, data analysts, content managers, LQA, LoQual Managers, everyone, language managers, project, program managers. There’s at least eight roles.’
‘Underneath themselves, executives see huge ambiguity. They don’t know all the details, but they trust the experts on the respective teams. Executives have to be consistent and believe in the mission and the goal. And continuously validate that their team understand the goals and are aligned.’
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Is localization changing?
It had struck me, over the course of the interview, that Oleks’s career movements and challenges had traveled with the changes in the localization industry generally.
The biggest change? In Oleksandr’s opinion: ‘over the last two decades, localization has become observably more technical.’
That’s driven by a maturer tooling landscape, he argued, which reinforced higher standards. ‘Continuous localization is not enough anymore. It should be uninterrupted, always on, simultaneous, highly available, portable, transferable’ he said.
And the next steps?
“When I was seven years old, in 1986, my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a localization manager.” Oleks gave a look which indicated he had told a joke. “I didn’t say that, of course. “Software localization didn’t even exist at the time.’
‘What we’ll do in the future as localization professionals has not been invented. Everything in the world is worth your attention. If it's super interesting, it may lead somewhere and combine with other things… the future of localization may get very cross-disciplinary, so keep an open mind.’
Get the next interview in the series
There’s so much more that Oleksandr said over the course of our conversation. And if you want to read on, you should check out our ebook on the subject of localization coming at the end of this interview series. You can sign up here to receive it, along with notifications of all the interviews as they come through.