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Sep 2, 2010

Why online translation business management?

This coming October it will be my pleasure to make a very short joint presentation with another colleague at the ProZ conference in Prague. The subject will be online translation management and a brief review of key features and issues to consider. The outline for the talk is somewhat challenging to develop, as the allocated time is thirty minutes, and this is a subject that could be discussed for hours without exhausting it, particularly if one begins to compare all the myriad online and offline options with each other.

For the sake of “full disclosure”, I'll remind the reader that I do now have a formal business association with a company providing such solutions: LSP.net. I'm technically on the payroll of an affiliated company, which simplifies my life by handling my backoffice functions and remembering to pay my health insurance, and as part of the arrangement I handle updates and many improvements to the English interfaces of the Online Translation Manager (OTM) as well as write occasional tips on how to use the system. I support that solution because I believe that this type of service is of great potential value to many of those with whom I have professional contact in the language industry. Here I mean online solutions of one sort or another, not necessarily the particular one I support because it fits my needs.
What led me personally to move from “offline” solutions – some of them very, very good – to online management tools for my translation business? Many people with businesses more complex than mine get by somehow with souped-up Excel spreadsheets or an Access database on steroids and a LAN. Tools like the Translation Office Manager (TOM) are network-enabled and do a great job even for agencies that have outgrown the kitchen table.

I had a very specific set of circumstances and experiences, which I think are not all too uncommon, even if their degree may be greater or less than my experience and they may occur in other situational clusters:
  1. a large number of projects for a team of two which required better coordination of schedules;
  2. responsibilities for portions of shared projects needed better definition (after a few incidents of accidental overlap in rushed projects with many files);
  3. access to the project management and invoicing functions by multiple persons was needed so that everything wasn't bottlenecked by my busy schedule;
  4. better data backup was needed after a hard drive with far more than a month's worth of unbilled work died unexpectedly and proved unrecoverable (very, very expensive);
  5. more secure data transmission (for receiving and delivering project files) was required after various half-baked encryption schemes several clients wanted proved unreliable;
  6. more reliable delivery of translations had long been required – several incidents each year occur where e-mail is delayed for hours, days, even weeks;
  7. access to project information was often required when we were out of the office, traveling, etc.;
  8. a better “filing solution” was needed for compliance with the legal requirements for retaining project-relevant documents such as e-mail, NDAs, master agreements, etc.
    Points 5 through 7 really only can be dealt with via an online solution of some kind. Whether that solution is a VPN, SaaS or something else is secondary. The third point also required an online solution particularly when the parties involved are often not at the same location or hiring a remote assistant is considered.

    There were other criteria to consider, such as workflow design and customizability where I was willing to consider some compromises, at least temporarily, but those eight points were my personal list of features that must be available to me in order to achieve the desired changes in my business. Much of the list had long since been satisfied by my desktop solutions from LTC and AIT, but the real stumbling block time and again came down to online multi-user access, data security and, in the end, cost and infrastructure issues as well.

    Three times in the last five years I have had cost estimates put together for an in-house server for our two-person office. Each time, however, I put off the decision to buy. In one case I simply didn't have the cash for the whole complex system that was proposed, and later when prices fell dramatically I was simply irritated by a line item of 150 euros per workstation to “connect” to the server (i.e. plug in a simple cable to the RJ-45 sockets built into the walls of the office for a network years ago). Really, though, the biggest issue for me was the lousy feeling in my gut at the thought of having to maintain yet another piece of hardware (and all the associated software) in the office. I've been fiddling with IT hardware and software for too many years now and I'm simply sick of it. I want to do things I really enjoy now like translate interesting texts or work with my dogs.

    So for me, the software as a service (SaaS) model is attractive for translation business management as well as for other applications I use like translation environments. If Kilgray were to offer an attractive SaaS package for using the memoQ Server (so I wouldn't have to mess with the supporting hardware), I would probably jump on it. As I did with the Online Translation Manager from LSP.net.

    To some extent my chosen solution is like hunting rabbits with a cannon loaded with grapeshot, but I prefer to have more features than I need and have the option of growing without changing systems than to meet a very limited set of requirements well and have no further possibilities in the chosen framework. That was why, years ago, I chose the agency version of LTC desktop software, and the few times I needed to outsource to the few people I trusted not to screw up I was glad of the additional flexibility with provider records and price lists.

    I really haven't seen a lot of good, secure, affordable options for SaaS to meet freelancers' needs. There are a few options for agencies, not all of them as transparent as OTM, but aside from a Swedish solution I stumbled across and didn't evaluate and the free but limited options at ProZ which I don't trust given the site's history of security breaches and questionable politics, I can't come up with any others that I would consider a viable option at this time. (If anyone has information to the contrary, please share it!)

    Nonetheless I think this will be an area to watch in our profession; the potential value to many of us is high, and the existing solutions for software as a service will develop further as others come online. That will be good for all of us I think.  


    4 comments:

    1. Thank you for sharing this. I had been curious about what management system you used. Please do tell about the Swedish option to me. You can send me an email.

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    2. I'll have to look for that Swedish system again (and will post it here in the comments when I do find it). I just remember that the monthly costs were similar to LSP.net's OTM (ca. € 30/month), but I recall being put off by the awful English I saw. I don't know anything about the system's functionality or legal compliance. That's an important aspect that is too often neglected i business solutions of this sort. Many jurisdictions have peculiar legal issues to consider, and many out-of-the-box solutions are ill-equipped to accommodate these. Or you'll be bled dry for a "custom" solution that really applies to everyone in your country. When I've talked to developers about Spanish tax rules, display conventions for currency symbols in different countries and other "minor" points, it quickly becomes clear that the Devil really is in the details.

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    3. Our little team is looking for a management tool at the moment. Have you used XTRF or Plunet?

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    4. @chacher: XTRF or Plunet? No. They do not meet my personal requirements AFAIK. For comparing various tools and feature priorities I created a small comparison matrix the other day for one of the providers. It can be used as a research and decision-making aid and can be downloaded as an MS Word file here.

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