Some Fundamentals of Project Management
By Alaina Brantner, MATI Member
My professional experience as a project manager includes positions at three translation firms of varying organizational maturity. In those positions, not only have I managed projects of varying complexity in over sixty languages, I’ve also had the opportunity to model my own work as a project manager off of the strategies of some amazing professionals. Below I share a few of the fundamental skills and practices I have seen implemented consistently by the successful project managers with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work.
Knowing Your Partners
While collaborating with colleagues from around the globe is one very exciting and rewarding component of the job, the need to know as much as possible about one’s partners is compounded by a work environment in which collaboration takes place almost exclusively online. For example, if you send a translator in Japan a file format with which they cannot work, you’ll likely lose an entire working day coordinating to get them the correct format due to time zone differences. In an industry in which turnarounds of yesterday can be the norm, proactively establishing project parameters around knowledge of a translator’s programs, capacity, location, etc. is therefore one way to ensure smooth project launches.
Overall, the information that seasoned project managers endeavor to know about their translators includes location (time zone) and contact details (i.e. landline, cell, Skype, Whatsapp, or other messenger IDs—the more the better); operating systems and CAT tools; specializations, degrees, and certifications; other commitments and capacity, in addition to general knowledge of the translator’s strengths and weaknesses.
On top of knowing this information about each of the translators with whom they work, as they become more experienced, project managers also become more and more aware of factors affecting the language pairs with which they regularly work as a whole. This includes things like periods in which availability in certain language pairs will be greatly diminished due to vacation trends and national holidays, cost of living in target markets and its effect on language costs, degree equivalencies between target and source markets, etc. Building this kind of working knowledge on individuals and cultures is an ongoing process, so above all, project managers develop and rely on a network of colleagues and a repository of resources to which they can turn for all sorts of on-the-fly answers to language questions.
Since project management is largely about big picture facilitation, project managers rely on the individuals at each stage of the translation process for micro-level feedback on performance, processes and potential improvements as well. For example, as a project manager, I look to translators for proactive feedback on localization issues and problems that have popped up during file preparation, such as character or symbol corruption, etc. I rely on internal DTP specialists for information on compatibility issues between desktop publishing file formats and CAT programs. I turn to the subject matter experts in quality control with questions on appropriate stylistic treatment of textual features, along with feedback on the translator’s performance, conformance to style guidelines, and how instructions could be improved. Maintaining open and constructive dialogue with all participants helps to ensure that any issues that arise are caught and resolved as quickly and smoothly as possible. Additionally, this ongoing positive collaboration amongst all stakeholders to overcome small challenges can have a big impact on overall work satisfaction and the realization of greater overall efficiencies as a result.
As I’ve learned the hard way, a deadline of “tomorrow” may mean September 1 to me, but on the other side of the globe (in China, for example), by the time a translator reads my email message, that same “tomorrow” deadline will mean September 2 to her, due to time zone differences. At its most basic, managing expectations is therefore about proactive, clear and explicit communication. Asking to receive a translation by tomorrow, Thursday, September 1 at 9:00 AM CST communicates my delivery expectations much more explicitly than “tomorrow” does. This communication style helps to ensure timely deliveries and facilitates project timeline planning as well.
Managing expectations is also about showing respect to one’s partners in the collaborative translation process. If a translator emails me proactively to let me know that they will need some additional time to complete a project due to unforeseen issues, I manage the expectations of the other providers in that process by letting them know of changes to the timelines so that they can adjust their schedules accordingly. The same goes for scheduling any unexpected project reviews. If file updates or revisions are necessary, for example, I can alert the translator and request that they maintain a window of availability to respond to any questions or review changes to files. This proactive communication of changing project parameters within a dynamic environment in which multiple projects are being completed simultaneously by all providers in the process helps to ensure that resources are available as steps become available. Most importantly, this keeps projects on track for final delivery.
The concept of managing expectations is also very important to the establishment of project scopes with one’s clients. The client may send over three files for translation, for example, while their request email only references two. Better to ask up front whether they have accidentally attached an extra file than to find out upon delivery that content has been translated that the client neither wanted nor needed. Conversations with the client surrounding project expectations may include more delicate topics as well, such as how rush turnarounds increase project costs and decrease quality, and how failure to make appropriate project investments up front is more likely to result in situations that require expensive and inefficient rework—and in which all losses will likely not be recoverable. Approaching these kinds of topics certainly requires delicacy, and sales representatives rely on their translation teams to provide informative and realistic feedback to clients on project parameters. While difficult, this sort of consultative approach has both long-term benefits with specific clients and for the profession as a whole. As clients become more aware of the intricacies of the translation process, they are more likely to approach that process more critically, with an understanding of the investments necessary to reach translation goals. And they’re more likely to return with their translation needs to those providers that have a positive track record for successfully managing expectations as well.
Project managers follow multiple projects simultaneously of various types and with varied processes. On any given day, a project manager’s task list may include project launches, queries from the quality team for the translator, quotes, questions from clients on new languages or services, questions from management on new translation technology, post-production TM updates, etc. More experienced project managers have therefore established systems for tracking outstanding tasks, and they prioritize tasks based on the overall objective of project management: to keep projects moving through the production process.
When I arrive to the office in the morning, I may have three high priority tasks that all need immediate attention. My general strategy will be to cross those items off my task list which I can complete most quickly, so that I can concentrate on any more time-consuming items. For example, not only does passing a translation delivery to the quality team take just a few minutes, but by making this pass right away, I’ve ensured that the project has not stalled between the translation and quality stages. I may also be working on finalizing a multi-language quote and initiating a new quote. While CAT analysis runs on the new quote, I may therefore follow up with any translators from whom I have not yet received a quote for my multi-language project. I’ll keep bouncing between the two projects until I am able to deliver the multi-language quote to the sales team, and send the processed files to the translator for the new project quote. This sort of multi-tasking means that process-orientation is an important skill for project management. While project managers’ focus is often monitoring the overall big picture status of projects, they must also be able to break down each stage into the individual actions that will move—sometimes inch—projects forward and follow through with those actions.
Prioritizing, however, is also about understanding at what points in the process to make time investments, and a good rule of thumb is that front-end investments often yield the greatest efficiencies on back-end processes. For example, when launching a project, establishing clear instructions on the treatment of stylistic features (acronyms, proper nouns, measurements) will be beneficial at every stage of the project that follows. During translation, the translator won’t have to pause to make a treatment decision for each new stylistic feature they encounter. During quality review, the reviewer will have a translation product in which measurements and acronyms are treated consistently, so they will be able to review the content more quickly and request less changes. During DTP, less changes will be required, cutting down on project revisions during formatting. During post-production TM updates, less changes will need to be implemented into the bilingual file, cutting down on the time for that as well. By taking the time on the front end of the process to establish stylistic guidelines, the project manager has therefore generated time savings at every subsequent stage.
Still, project managers are also realistic, and they understand that no matter how carefully a project has been planned, surprises are bound to pop up as new versions of programs become available and generate new bugs, as deadlines are inadvertently missed, and revisions to the source file are sent over mid-project. Ultimately, project managers are therefore flexible, and when problems arise, their immediate reaction is to establish plan(s) B (C, and potentially D, depending). Only after a project is back on track will they take the time to reflect on what went awry and what improvements can be made next time around to avoid similar issues.
Overall, implementing the strategies outlined above can help project managers to achieve a positive domino effect within their organizations, in which happy translators lead to happy reviewers and desktop publishers, which leads to happy clients as project costs decrease, happy sales teams as clients request more work, and happy managers as a result. Beyond these skills, and as with any professional, a healthy amount of curiosity also goes a long way, as does identifying the individuals within your organization who work hard and have the know-how and sticking with them!
Alaina Brantner is a Project, Vendor and TM Manager and a Spanish to English translator. She holds a Master of Arts in Translation and served as MATI Director from 2012 to 2016.