One Year On: From EMT to Apple PM

John Maurer graduated with me from the Spanish program, with a Master’s degree in Translation and Localization Management. He lives in San Jose, his hometown, and recently started working with Apple with their HR department doing internal localization. In this interview, he tells us about his experiences as a project manager for a small LSP and how he got started in the world of localization.

EF: So, what are you doing exactly at your current job, if you could give us an idea?

JM:  So I’m working within HR, HR communications. And basically what we do is all internal communications to Apple employees all across the world. So if a new program comes out, such as the Employee Purchase Program where you get discounts if you’re an Apple employee, all that information and the way that employees can access it and all the rules that go along with it, that information needs to be communicated via different channels to employees. So we work with all those communications for the different programs that are out there and all the benefits and policies. Everything you think of HR, behind the firewall. So none of this is public, it’s all for employees. But we deal with both retail employees in the stores and corporate employees that work in the Apple corporate buildings. So what my job specifically is, is once they decide on the content that’s going to be produced for a given program or channel that we are localizing for right now, we localize for thirteen websites, thirteen different languages… most of the European languages. We do Spanish for Spain and we’re gonna be doing Spanish for Mexico soon. Brazil is coming up. We do Japanese, Chinese… thirteen languages. I can’t think of them right now.

One of my main jobs is, once we have it, I prepare it, send it over to the translators, it gets sent back to us. Once it’s back one of my main jobs is to be in contact with what we call validators. Nothing goes on Apple’s websites or any of their content without first being okayed by someone within HR. So we send, for instance, our Japanese content gets sent to Japan to someone who is an HR Apple employee and they go into WorldServer and they validate everything the translators did. So it’s just like after a round of QA, validation, but it’s content-specific, from someone that knows what the terminology should be and can catch things that maybe the translators didn’t. So I do a lot of communications with different countries or validators. Depending on the language there’s anywhere from two validators to ten because each of them has specific subject-matter expertise within HR. So you have to really know what you’re looking at and who needs to validate it basically. So that’s one of my jobs.

EF: Cool. So you had been a project manager before, right? You’ve been in Apple just for a little while.

JM: Yeah, I’ve been in Apple for two months. Before that I was working for a company called Venga for a year after I graduated. Actually before, I was interning with them my whole second year. There I was doing project management with Tamara Kislak who was in the French program. And that was a good experience. It was a small, small company so everything we did was from the ground up and we had to figure out a process for everything, which was a little bit frustrating sometimes, but makes you learn things the hard way. And before Venga I did an internship with Communicaid in San Jose. So I’ve been doing project management now for a little over two years.

EF: So from what you’ve told me, your project management work was very different from what you’re experiencing right now, or are there similarities?

JM: Yeah, it’s a really different world from the LSP side of things to what they call the client side. And in fact I was lucky to get in a position at Apple where it’s kind of like a hybrid, because my boss is very much involved in the process from the beginning of writing content to the end, the final result localized in different languages. Whereas on the LSP side it’s a little bit more traffic filing and they have the content, they just need it in these languages, they pass them on to their vendors, the LSP sends it back and that’s it. They might do some QA on their side, but we’re really like kind of seeing how the content evolves, making decisions and helping them decide how to write content so that it will be more easily localized. So that’s exciting. But I would say on the LSP even more so… you’re doing DTP [etc]… you can ask Martiño.

EF: Ha ha, no definitely, he’s getting interviewed too.  So, let’s leave the job for now and let’s talk about when you first started at MIIS, when you first thought about going to the Monterey Institute in translation and localization, what motivated you to enter the program in the first place?

JM: I graduated from my Bachelor’s degree with Spanish as my language and they were basically geared towards teaching Spanish, but when I finished I realized very quickly that I wasn’t going to get a job with just a Bachelor’s degree in anything other than a teaching position and I didn’t wanna go straight into my teaching credentials, so I kind of, for a year or so after I graduated I was working still at the hospital, which was a great job, but it wasn’t where I wanted to end up.

EF: And just quickly, what were you doing at the hospital?

JM: Oh I was a technician in the emergency room. I had my EMT license and all through my schooling I worked at the hospital to just make money. And that’s where my family works and it’s a really nice environment, a great job.

EF: And pays for school too.

JM: Yeah. So I realized pretty quickly that I needed to get some more education and I knew that I really had a love for language and that I had always done well in my language classes, so I heard about Monterey from a friend and I applied. And I actually was originally in the translation and interpretation program but when I got there the first week I heard about TLM and it seemed a little bit more like what I wanted to do and more my kind of personality, I think, than straight translation and interpretation. So that’s kind of how I landed in that.

EF: Cool. And you had never studied translation before going to MIIS? You had never been in a translation class? Specifically translation.

JM: No, no formal education as far as translation or interpretation.

EF: And had you had to do any casual interpreting, maybe at the hospital…?

JM: Yeah. Actually I did like a short exam with AT&T cause that’s what the hospital used for their language line, I did a little exam with them to basically have them give me the okay to interpret when they needed me in the emergency room. So I did a lot of medical interpreting, just consecutive, and it was pretty casual because I knew all the doctors and all the nurses so it was more like conversation, it wasn’t like, you know, going to your work professionally. But I did that and I also for a couple of years, one of the nurses I worked with had started a non-for profit called Live to Give and was helping some disabled children in Nicaragua and Honduras and so I was in that board of directors and I went down to both those countries as, like, a liaison interpreter and did some work with them. And then basically informal interpreting a lot.

EF: But you had never become interested in actually pursuing it as a career.

JM: Yeah, I mean, I love interpreting, I like being that connection between two people that otherwise wouldn’t be able to communicate, but I don’t know if the lifestyle is my cup of tea.

EF: So when you first started out at MIIS, back in that first month, that first week that you started going to classes, how did you see yourself at the end of the degree in May of 2011? What did you see yourself doing and how does it differ from what you actually did?

JM: I remember coming into MIIS pretty confidently because I’d always been at the top of my language classes and like blowing people away, and then the first week I was like, holy crap, everybody’s so much better than me. So it was kind of like a big shock, which was good, cause I don’t think you learn unless you’re in that kind of an environment where you’re kind of pushed to exceed.

And my Spanish definitely improved on a technical level. I think my spoken Spanish was pretty strong always, but just from being able to look at something and do sight translation and stuff I’d never really done, just all those elements, I think it totally made me more well-rounded in my language and the whole localization management part where everything was brand new as it came up, so I feel like it made me more well-rounded as a linguist and a professional. I don’t think that all of the programs and the classes that they had were really like amazing.

EF: Hahaha.

JM: It wasn’t like website localization, like really top notch. It was kind of a joke, actually, but what it did is that it just made you aware of all these different things. And the truth being without the degree at MIIS I don’t think I would be at the job I’m in right now. I wouldn’t have gotten the job at Venga. I wouldn’t have had the background knowledge about what goes on in localization to even get into this field. So I have so much more to learn. I don’t think MIIS gave me all the tools, you know, everything I need to know about everything, but I think it gave me like a really good head start.

EF: And now that you have the language part, it’s stronger, more consolidated, do you feel that that has helped you a lot as a project manager and in your current job? Do you feel that that’s very important for a project manager, you know, that sometimes there’s a focus more on the business side of things when it comes to hiring someone as a project manager. Do you think that the linguistic part is actually important?

JM: Yeah, definitely. I think that most of the people in the industrsy right now or a majority of them that have been in localization since it started were regular project managers and they just… their business had a need for someone to start translating and they got kind of sucked into it, but they don’t have a background or an undestanding necessarily of the intricacies of language and all the things that can come up when you’re trinyg to internationalize or localize something. With a background in language I feel ike I have a much deeper understanding with like, the validators that I talk with, they can come back to me with a linguistic question, and I’m not like, why the hell do they wanna know that?

EF: Hahahaha.

JM: You know, like, why does that even matter, you know? So yeah, I think a background in language makes…

EF: Makes a difference.

JM: I don’t think it makes you a great project manager cause I think that’s another set of skills, but I think that it adds to it. I mean if you have that background it definitely enriches your job as you work with this kind of stuff.

EF: And through those two years in school or even this past year, have you had a moment of fear or paralysis when you wondered if this was the right career for you, if you had made the right move, or you were pretty confident from the beginning?

JM: Yeah, actually, working at my last job, it was a hard year for me. Because just coming out of the degree I think that I still had so much to learn and I still do, but I was at a point where I really needed someone to still teach me and to lean on, and I didn’t have that support there because the people above me were no more knowledgeable about localization than I was. So I struggled a lot with that and I really disliked my job and I think this change over to Apple has been a big, huge change for me and it’s made a huge difference in the person that’s my mentor/my boss. I feel like I can bounce ideas off of her, so I was missing that at my other job. But as far as if this is the career I wanna do or not in the future, I like project management, I love localization, but I think in the future I’d really like to do something on a personal level, whether it’s back to working with like a non-profit or working with… There’s a little bit of the humanitarian part of it that I miss in projet management. And that’s what I loved in the ER. When I worked in medicine it’s like getting in there and fixing someone up, helping someone with crutches and helping an old person into the car. That sounds ridiculous but there’s none of that in project management. So I guess I miss that. But I think I’m in a good spot right now so I’m happy.

EF: So how do you feel you could maybe couple that other passion with your career as a project manager or as a linguist in general? How do you feel you can bring in that humanitarian side in the future maybe?

JM: I think that it would be, like I said, something along the lines, not necessarily a non-profit but an organization that is out there with a cause, that’s maybe helping underprivileged people in Latin America or that I can use my project management skills to help them build a plan. But I can also be out there and do some of that liaison interpreting which I really enjoy, and  being like the frontman for a project like that would be really fulfilling to me. And it might be something I do on the side. I continue to work as a project manager for Apple or whatever and that’s like my hobby. I think that I miss that right now.

EF: And after you graduated, what were the main issues you confronted, like, I don’t know, financial… well, in your case you were already working with a company so you had a job and maybe you didn’t have the heavy financial burden and having to find clients and all that, but were there any issues like that that you had, like logistics that you had to confront once you graduated? Like you were out of that school environment that can be like a bubble.

JM: I would say that I was unpleasantly surprised at how little they paid project managers.

EF: Ha ha ha ha.

JM: And I was lucky to get a pretty good position, you know, compared to, like, what I was hearing, but it wasn’t very much for this area. The area as you know —you just moved here— is super expensive and I do have debt from school and from previous stuff, so I’m still dealing with that. I think that’s probably the biggest stress or burden. And I was also dealing with traveling. I was traveling to the City (San Francisco) like three days a week, which gets pretty heavy. And I think that interpreters have to deal with that too, moving around a lot.

EF: Did you end up biking to work the other day?

JM: Yes.

EF: How did that go?

JM: It went really well. I’m still nervous. But it’s probably good to be nervous cause then I don’t get too lazy and get hit by a car. So I’m like ten miles away from work right now, so I biked twenty miles two days last week.

EF: Did you go on Thursday, which was Bike to Work Day around here? They had like power stations and all that stuff.

JM: They did? That’s funny, I didn’t even realize it.

EF: You didn’t know? Yeah, yeah.

JM: I’d heard about it but I didn’t realize it was the same day I rode my bike.

EF: So you seem pretty happy with where you’ve landed recently, so that worked out. Is there anything that has encouraged you particularly or disappointed you about the industry? You mentioned that you were surprised at how little project managers get paid, especially in this area. Is there anything else like that that you found disappointing or actually encouraging that you didn’t know about before?

JM: I didn’t realize… I mean, I knew localization was kind of a new idea in terms of the big scheme of things. I think it’s only been around like ten, maybe plus years, you know. I didn’t realize how small the industry was in terms of like… for instance here in the Bay Area it seems like everybody knows everybody and I noticed a lot of jumping around from job to job. And I think that that has to do with project managers kind of getting burned out in their jobs. So that’s a little disappointing to see that project managers don’t have such longevity in a given position, unless they can just stick with it for a long time.

Also I felt that in the LSP side of things, I was surprised… I don’t know, I just felt like there was kind of a lot of promising things higher than what you’re necessarily able to do and they’re kind of like, “go find out how to do that.” And I don’t really like that feeling. Sometimes I felt like we would tell the client that we could offer x number of things, and it wasn’t necessarily lying, but it just didn’t feel like it could…

EF: Stretching it a bit?

JM: Yeah. And that’s how like all those conferences, like the localization conferences where everybody’s like saying all the things they can do, and that’s not really my favorite part of the industry.

EF: Yeah, kind of like a meat market, selling your wares. Hahaha. Yeah, definitely I guess it’s part of the whole industry. I see it a lot also with freelancers that they say, oh yeah, I can do into this language and into this other language and the way they present themselves it just… I don’t like coming off like that ‘cause it feels a little bit dirty, actually. It’s kind of like, yeah, I know I have to advertise my services and I’m a businessperson but at the same time I don’t wanna be a peddler telling you, hey, here I am, and I’m the hottest thing that ever came out, you know…

JM: Yeah, and an example of that is, I know that a lot of LSP’s make themselves look bigger, like they have more project managers than they have, that they have more linguists in their databases —“three thousand people!”—, and they really don’t.

EF: Haha, then you see them scrambling for translators on LinkedIn or Proz.

JM: Yeah, so there’s that aspect of it that… I guess every small business is gonna go through that stage to get a foothold, but I just didn’t really like being a part of it. That’s one of the big differences client-side ‘cause you’re not searching for clients, there’s plenty of work ready for you to do. It’s a difference experience.

EF: So, I know this is kind of a cliché question, but where do you see yourself in five years time? Do you think you might stay in the area or that you’ll continue working kind of in this type of company or…?

JM: Yeah, I see myself in the area still. I’d really like to buy a house one of these days. On the flip side I’ve also talked a lot with Gabriel, my boyfriend, he’s from Guadalajara, Mexico, which is supposedly the sister city to San Jose, it’s kind of like a little Silicon Valley in Mexico, and we’ve talked a lot about buying… I mean, he would have no problem getting work there, of course, as a stylist and doing a salon and whatnot. And I think that I would have the ability if I wanted to move there to do some kind of localization or work for an international company, so we’ve kind of juggled that idea too. So I might find myself in Mexico.

EF: Have you thought about starting your own company?

JM: Ugh, not after last year.

EF: Haha, ok.

JM:  If I started my own company I don’t know if it would be in localization. I’ve always wanted to have a coffee shop, just something small and simple, you know, kind of like a mom and pop coffee shop. If I had my own company I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be selling linguistic abilities or projects.

EF: Cool. So, one last question. What would you say to someone who is starting out as a translator, project manager or whatever in the profession? Not necessarily graduating from a degree but just starting out or wanting to get in there. What would you say to them that you think is vital or essential to know?

JM: I think that just always be able to ask questions because I don’t think people generally offer up all of their information and you come into projects or assignments and someone will give you what they think is clear objectives, but they might have another list of things that are not being conveyed. So being able to ask questions about a project or a process and also being willing to just dive in… like if you have a new system you have to work with being able to go in and just like mess around with it and try to figure it out yourself. That’s probably something that I struggle with on the technical side, because I’m more of like if someone shows me how to do something in a system I pick it up pretty quickly, but if you just give me something it’s hard for me to just like go in and click buttons and figure what you’re supposed to do.

EF: Hahaha. Yeah but you suffer a lot doing that because I’ve done that before and you suffer like going into all the buttons, just googling it up. Sometimes systems are not very user friendly I guess.

JM: And not just systems but like localization processes. I mean, you have to be able to research and figure stuff out yourself. There’s a lot of that. And I realize that most people don’t have all the answers in localization. People that are your boss don’t necessarily know what’s the better way to do it or what’s the correct way. It’s a lot of investigating and trial and error, and you need to be persevering and get back up when something doesn’t work, cause it happens a lot.

EF: Well, thank you very much for participating and I wish you lots of luck in your future endeavors.

JM: Thank you, Elsa.

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