Go Global or Go Home: Why Localization Is Key

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    When I was working at Computerworld Hong Kong throughout the 1990s, one of the things that never ceased to amaze me was how ill-equipped U.S. hardware and software vendors were to sell their products in the Hong Kong market. There seemed to be a general obliviousness to how the needs of that market differed from those of users in the United States — if any thought at all was given to how their products needed to be localized for the Hong Kong market, it was an afterthought. That’s why I welcomed the opportunity last week to speak with Anna Schlegel.

    Schlegel, senior director of globalization programs strategy at NetApp and author of the book, “Truly Global: The Theory and Practice of Bringing Your Company to International Markets,” is one of the world’s most widely respected experts in the localization field. In a career that has included stints with the likes of VMware, Verisign, Xerox, and Cisco Systems, Schlegel has driven the globalization and localization strategies of some of the biggest names in the technology industry.

    I opened the conversation by asking Schlegel about the role the IT profession has to play in the realm of globalization and localization. She said IT pros can have a huge impact on the success of how companies go global:

    Let’s say you’re a database administrator, or someone managing a CRM system, or you’re building a tool. Anything that you’re doing for your company can have an impact on IT and salespeople in other parts of the world. So if you’re hard-coding things or preparing things in a way that isn’t flexible for the various countries, or that wouldn’t resonate with, say, a systems engineer in another country, you’re already delaying the success of the company’s globalization effort. In that sense, everybody plays a very important role in how companies go global. You need to understand that whatever you code or build or envision needs to be global-ready.

    Schlegel pointed out that anyone who thinks “localization” is synonymous with “translation” needs to understand that there’s a lot more to it than that:

    There are a lot of hidden nuances, even down to what you name a product. Coding with respect to the way dates are presented differently in different parts of the world is very important. If you’re a developer, and you’re not aware that the strings within your code are going to have to be extracted and sent for translation, if a product manager cannot extract those strings because you hard-coded them, your product will never go global.

    I mentioned to Schlegel that when I was at Computerworld Hong Kong, I editorialized fairly harshly against U.S. software and hardware companies, virtually all of which for a long time relied on local distributors to sell and support their products, rather than investing in a local direct presence where they could provide the same level of support customers in the U.S. were getting. I asked for her thoughts on that, and whether a channel strategy can be sufficient in lieu of a direct presence. Her response:

    The companies that I’ve worked with rely extremely heavily on the channel, to the point where sometimes it’s 100 percent. Where I have seen things work the best is where there’s a mixed model — direct sales and channel. When it’s all channel, the people in the headquarters of the company need to understand that they have to create things that are channel-ready. If the company doesn’t have this mentality, the channel strategy will be very difficult to execute. You’re giving things that aren’t ready to the channel to compete with other offerings, and the channel might just reject it.

    Schlegel went to explain what startups and smaller companies can do to lay the groundwork for establishing a global presence:

    Let’s say you’re creating a product here in the States. It would be very healthy for the product manager and the product engineer to pretend that somebody outside of the United States needs to buy this product. That will mean you have to envision a person from a different culture, with a different perspective, is using the product. What is this person going to need? This person may be using a keyboard to download your product that will not look like your keyboard — you need to code for things like that.

    If you know how to code with internationalization in mind, the day your company wants to go global, it’s going to be so much faster and easier. What’s happening to companies here in the States is that many don’t think about these things from the get-go. And the day they wake up and they have a potential deal in China or Japan or France, they can’t close it. So if you can code with internationalization, with Unicode in mind, that’s going to be very helpful.

    The other thing startups can do is test their product in another country — have another country test the product so you can get that feedback. Instead of focusing on adding more features, make your product very strong from the base infrastructure.

    Schlegel wrapped up the conversation by highlighting the importance of hiring the right talent that can help a company go global:

    If you are an executive with a company, you are on the line to sell, and to make money. So the people you bring in to drive the company to success need to be people who are driven not just to be successful in one country, or two or three — they need to be driven to be successful in dozens of countries. You need to bring in people who can think outside of your headquarters, outside of your area, outside of your country. When I speak to HR people and hiring managers, I ask them if they’ve had to deal with a major issue in another country, and how they resolved it. Have they hired a brand new team in Europe? How did that go? Have they ever established a process to include people from other countries who are needed to make the program successful?

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.


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