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Feb 23, 2011

Why I moved on from a great tool like Translation Office 3000

I have to smile when I hear colleagues, even some who run agencies, tell me about how they run their entire business with Excel spreadsheets. Or how they had the perfect custom solution whipped together by a genius Access programmer. I used to do that shit. As part of my plan to give up medical device consulting, sell my farm and move to the urban horror of NRW, Germany I did a stint learning to develop database-backed web applications using Active Server Pages, Cold Fusion and other tools popular at the time. I was pretty good at it and used to annoy the Hell out of the developers at a transitional employer by scripting working solutions in hours that they had told management and customers would take many man-months of effort. Never believe what developers tell you; I don't think they are liars, they just don't have a clue, and I don't think all the recent fads of "lean" and "agile" development and whatnot have changed that much. There are organizations with plausible roadmaps that underpromise and over-deliver (Kilgray and LSP.net come to mind), but your average software cowboys, however skilled, aren't real strong in the project management and planning department. Thus these custom solutions are nearly all unsustainable or far too expensive in the long run.

A direct client of mine in the nutrition industry is a case in point. They have their labels, product literature, contracts, etc. translated into at least 20 languages. All this is done with Excel spreadsheets (where they keep trying to shove more text into the cells than certain versions can hold, so content is forever being truncated and lost). Projects used to be managed by the company's purchasing agent in his copious free time. I'm sure he used to be a PM at a major translation agency, but maybe not. Anyway, he's no dummy: he talked his bosses into hiring someone to coordinate those projects full time. And a full time job it is when you do everything with scratch pads and Excel sheets. After I spent several years advising them on the benefits of TM technology, they considered Déjà Vu and other solutions, but finally opted to have the head of their IT department write their own solution. Last time I asked (a year ago) the costs were in excess of 30,000 euros and all the system could do was import and export Excel spreadsheets. Conversion of the data to various layout formats still proceeds by copy and paste. They want and need the control offered by off-the-shelf solutions like Ontram, the memoQ Server, SDL Teamworks, OTM from LSP.net, etc. but somehow they are convinced that they save money and gain control by growing, rolling and smoking their own.

They're smoking something, alright. Take it from an IT fool with his foot in that swamp for nearly 40 years now: if you are doing more than minor custom integrations of off-the-shelf, well-supported solutions, you are probably driving blindfolded down a dead-end alley. Early in my career I saw Avery waste a fortune developing its own LIMS to handle data from the corporate analytical laboratory, only to dump it for a standard commercial tool that offered standard data migration options. The wealth of old data was probably never rescued - last I heard the custom database format could not be cracked. Things have gotten better since the 1980s, but not as much as some believe.

Which brings me to AIT's Translation Office 3000 and its proprietary database. At least the developers created some reasonable data export options; it's hard to imagine any viable application without that today. TO3000 is a popular solution for individual translators who do not outsource. I like it, and I used it for three years after my original tool (the agency version of LTC Organiser) was discontinued, and the disturbing lack of internal coordination at LTC in 2006/2007 caused me to pull back from adopting their new Worx solution. Customer support from the AIT team in the Ukraine is also prompt and cheerful, if not always informed on matters like local legal requirements for invoices. If you are a freelancer who never outsources or run a language services office that does everything in-house, TO3000 is a viable, affordable solution that is easy to learn and implement. I like the company and think they do great budget products for translators. That's why I have links to AIT on my blog, to help colleagues find respectable solutions for managing language service projects. Their support is also very good; I recently needed help to load my old database on a new system to handle a legal matter, and the AIT told me exactly what I needed to know and provided me with all the resources to accomplish it. I give them top marks.

Translation Office 3000 is a single-user desktop system. It includes a customer database, project quotation, scheduling and invoicing, some e-mail features and other basics needed to keep track of your business. The RTF templates are easy to customize to meet your personal or local statutory requirements. There is no database for suppliers (subcontractors), which is why I don't recommend it as a solution if you outsource. That requires a second tool, and the more places related data must be maintained, the more effort you have to maintain it and the greater the likelihood of some sort of organizational meltdown eventually.

It's a great system, but... I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that a healthy business really requires more to avoid wasting time and possibly losing clients and projects.

I'm a lone freelancer. I hardly ever outsource. Once in a while I'll work in a team on something, well, maybe rather often if you count those who edit my work, which you really should. Right there the issues with TO3000 begin.

But as I've mentioned elsewhere, there were certain specific issues that led me to look further:
  • I needed a second person to access the records to enter customer and project data and issue invoices
  • I needed to avoid the time and expense to maintain a local server, and I needed regular backups that could not be forgotten
  • I needed to check the status of projects and correspondence while traveling 
  • I needed to reduce the number of programs I juggled to manage my business
  • Most of all, I needed reliable deliveries to my customers. With secure encryption. Deliveries kept getting swallowed in e-mail systems, and delivering huge projects was a major nuisance. If my partner at the time needed to make a big delivery, I had to do it, because she had no idea how to upload to the FTP or web server. All this was a huge drag on my time and created uncertainty. And clients were not happy to learn that the delivery had occurred hours or days before but never arrived.
  • I needed to handle transactions in a legally compliant manner that meets international auditing standards. This includes a requirement for time-saving templates that are correct and do not require legal research on my part.
Although TO3000 is a great program backed by a great team, it fails on every one of these points. Its real advantage is price: for under 200 euros you can get a license and get started. But you're on your own for security, backups, legal compliance, etc.

So even for a "little" freelancer, a more comprehensive solution makes sense. And there are plenty of these. The Translation Office Manager (TOM) is one solution that I've looked at repeatedly as it has improved over the years, and one agency I work with in Düsseldorf has apparently made it the backbone of business there. AIT offers Projetex for agencies, though I never managed to get the database scripts to work, and feedback I've heard from others using it is not good. AFAIK both of these require local server maintenance: once again security, backups, legal compliance, etc. at your own risk.

The current Worx, Plunet and others provide a more professional approach with options closer to my needs and some that I would hope to see eventually in the solution I do use. However, the costs for these are hardly transparent upon casual inquiry, and they are inevitably higher than the system I adopted. I've done way too much IT support over the years; I am good at it, but I hate it. So I wanted a hosted solution that requires a minimal time investment on my part. And I need absolute reliability for my deliveries, easy, accurate record keeping and full legal compliance for an international business. (I may be small-time, but I have clients scattered around the world.) Most of the time TO3000 largely covers my project organization needs, but more and more I find myself in team situations for larger projects that require agency organization functions. And I am on a strict budget: paying full college support costs for a kid isn't cheap even in a country without tuition charges.

The Online Translation Manager from LSP.net offers me all the flexibility, scalability and access I need for a monthly cost that is half my rate for a single hour of work. I adopted this solution 14 months ago, and I have used it in 5 different configurations for various businesses and test systems. After half a year I began to support its localization, because I believe in the value of what the system offers and I see rapid progress in its development for the diverse needs of an international market. Right now I'm working on dialogs and instructions for the version 4.1 release scheduled for next Monday, a minor one, but one which contains more real improvements than I experienced with my other business management solutions in several years. This is not a perfect system. No system is, because requirements of users vary widely. But it is the best general system I have seen so far, and is likely the one with the most potential as evidenced by its support policies and development roadmap. Time and again I see parallels with Kilgray, a company with a product (memoQ) not ready for prime time when I first saw it a few years ago, now beating the pants off the industry "leader" SDL for functionality, user-friendliness, support and cost and charging ahead with useful new innovation at a rate that shows no signs of slowing. Which horse will you bet on? The charging thoroughbred leaving its competitors in a cloud of dust and gravel? Or the lame mare who plods along remembering former victories and daydreaming about a quiet pasture? (I have a nice one here at Vehlefanz Manor where she can retire.) I'll bet my small stack of cash on LSP.net, because OTM keeps me winning, gives me security and leaves me time for life.

17 comments:

  1. Great post Kevin, thanks for taking the time to describe and compare the two systems.

    I have been thinking for quite a while to invest in such a system (I am also one of the Excel and Access "I can do it on my own" types :-)). And OTM has been on my list ever since last year's BDÜ JMV in Baden-Baden, where Ralf Lemster did a short presentation on it.

    Yet, one thing about OTM keeps bothering me: I do not feel comfortable at the thought that all my project and customer related data is stored somewhere else beyond my control, e.g. invoices, correspondence and the like.

    Is there anything you can tell me about this concern? I am sure that some colleagues are bothered by the same question, especially the German ones ;-)

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  2. Tatjana, if you're like most of us, every day you send confidential e-mails. UNENCRYPTED. Clients e-mail me confidential files with NDAs to sign and send back. But the data they send isn't as well protected as your average swinger in a San Francisco bathhouse in the 1970s. You send invoices by e-mail and postal mail. The former isn't secure, the latter isn't really either. The invoices often pass through a number of hands: the postal personnel, clerks, accountants, etc. Anywhere in that chain confidential information can be leaked or stolen.

    What is most important is that the parts you can control are secure and that you are legally protected. You mention Ralf; he's a good example. He does a lot of highly confidential work for IPOs and other financial and business transactions. The nature of his work means that he is under a legal obligation in Germany to maintain exact records, including records of everyone who has had access to data. IPOs and corporate mergers are very touchy deals, and translators dealing with that world are held to the highest standards of security. That is one reason why Ralf chose OTM and introduced it to me. He probably told you about that, but if not, ask him.

    The architect of the OTM system is one of the most paranoid guys I know when it comes to legal compliance, security and safe practice. The company's data security practices are beyond reproach; information on them is found here. Can you *really* do better than that? And automatically sort everything where it belongs? Remember also that you can get backup exports and save you data locally as well, but as someone who spent a few years working for a specialist in Germany on data archiving and legal requirements (EASY Software), I can make a confident bet that you don't know much about GDPdU and are not following that law. With OTM you would be. And the system is ISO 9001 certified, so certification of your business under that standard is also relatively simple and inexpensive. That opens up business opportunities that would usually be beyond your reach. Some industry clients only want to deal with certified companies, which is how some agencies scoop up business they shouldn't have.

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  3. Thanks, you pointed out exactly the problems I have with TO3000.

    And "urban horror of NRW" made my day.

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  4. Thanks a lot!
    I wasn't so much concerned about data security (I've read LSP's info on that) but rather aout the fact that my documents and files are not "here with me" on my computer's hard drive. Yet, you answered this question - if backups can be made my compulsion to control might be satisfied ;-)

    As far as the German requirements for data storage are concerned, I have been well aware of those and I have been complying - but thanks for pointing that out. I am sure not many people know about the requirement to store e-mails too (and not just invoices etc.).

    Well, I guess you might have convinced me to download the trial version :-)

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  5. I am planning to buy TO3000 as I do not outsource. I am from Ukraine. Why "the Ukraine", Kevin? :)

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  6. Tatjana, there's nothing to download for OTM. It's a web service that runs on the browser of your computer, smart phone, etc. That also means that you don't have compatibility and update issues. I posted information on the current trial usage terms here, but as these can change again, it's best to check the LSP.net site.
    It's encouraging to hear that you are aware of the German legal requirements and comply with them. It's rather depressing that mentioning these provokes a baffled stare with most colleagues, even some "agency" owners. On the bright side, people like that help to secure the future of my friends who practice law and do audits for a living :-)

    @ Mykhailo: Old, bad historical habit that. I still haven't got used to the fact that Brezhnev is gone.
    TO3000 is a great tool if you work alone, don't need multi-user access, are religious about backups and don't have security issues with your deliveries or deal with them in other ways. I do find it discouraging, however, that the interface has undergone little real improvement in years; I've been wishing for simple things like saved "profiles" with various settings for currencies and dates for years, but nothing has changed. Still, the software would represent a big step up in organization for many translators, and it's a great solution to start with under the conditions cited. And AIT offers good, friendly support like my other favorites. That's half the battle.

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  7. Hi Kevin,

    I use TO3000, and have done for a few years. It more or less meets my functional needs, though like you, I'm a little disappointed in the lack of any recent development to speak of.

    However, the one thing that really pushes me towards adopting a SaaS solution is the backup angle. As such, I've been following your comments on OTM with interest, and I even had a look at their site a couple of months back. i was left with the impression that it's a little over the top for a single translator who never outsources. Functionally, I don't need it to do a whole lot more than TO3000 does; I'd just like to to do it in a more secure and modern way. But it seems to offer a whole lot more complexity that I would need.

    I'd welcome your comments on how good an investment OTM might be for a single freelancer with no outsourcing requirements, and in particular whether its additional capabilities make it unwieldy for such a user.

    Thanks in advance,

    Rob

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  8. @Rob: "Over the top" is a valid concern. I would say that's partly the case but not as much as one's initial impression might indicate. Also, changes I expect in the future (part of the roadmap I'm told) will address that. First of all, it's important to understand that LSP.net is part of a corporate group with several agencies who have used this solution in particular ways for many years, and they originally did not think of OTM as a solution for freelancers. Thus there are a few steps like creating and assigning jobs in a project that are rather "pointless". For 99% of what I do I have a few extra clicks to mark the little box that says "Project manager assign to self". It's not much effort (10 to 20 seconds usually), but I'd be lying if I said it doesn't bug me. There are plans to streamline that in the future, possibly sometime this year. (I don't remember and will have to ask - the relevant conversation is months past.)

    As for the rest of the steps one must go through, they are necessary for anyone, freelancer or agency PM. OTM takes a little getting used to, because its structure strongly encourages good, secure practices, and not all of us are used to that. Also, the nomenclature used in some places gets in the way sometimes for understanding what's really going on. An example: I used to be a little irritated about the need to create a "quotation" and mark a project as "accepted" when my client already sent me an assigned job and just wants a delivery. However, when I started to gripe about it, the project's editor pointed out that all I was really doing was entering the data for the invoice so I didn't have to deal with that and the end of the project when I'm tired, and quite often I do have to send an actual quotation. OTM has defaults to attach my terms of business and company profile (i.e. my personal profile or CV) if I want to, and sending the T&Cs gives me greater contractual security. Indeed, most of the time when I am done, with just a quick click the PDF invoice is off to the client, or I make a few adjustments to my original estimate (typical for a German project with target line charges) and send the invoice off almost as quickly. Or I print the thing off and mail it.

    The organization of the data and easy search saves me so much time, and I had a superior system for doing this before (which I still use in parallel for my local working folders).

    So in summary, yes - there is some overkill and it can be a bit annoying, though the burden is not as great as perceived when I'm in a bad mood. But when I balance that against the time I save and the security I now have with better deliveries, more reliable organization, no IT maintenance hassles, etc. etc. I am way, way ahead on time savings and I'm not screwing around with half a dozen different tools to do basic stuff. Everything is integrated.

    And as I mentioned, there are plans for streamlining, and on the whole I can't argue with the company's planning priorities much. They are flexible as new knowledge and insights are gained, but most importantly, in the past year they have proven to me that they are reliable. Just like with Kilgray, I can trust them "at my back" to keep my business covered and viable. And that was the reason that memoQ won me over despite the fact that I had another great solution that I loved (Déjà Vu). Kilgray was engaged and making constant progress, providing superior support and communicating. The needs that weren't met initially were met eventually, and I had reliable statement from the company about what to expect when. The same now applies to LSP.net - the progress in the past year has been better than promised and I have learned to trust them to cover my needs better as time goes on.

    And on those rare occasions when I need to behave like an agency, all the heavy artillery is there ready to use, and it doesn't cost me more!

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  9. Hi everyone,
    I am also an OTM user and worked with Projetex for two years. Projetex is the TO3000 version for agencies. Basically the funcionalities are the same, only you have an extra tab for resources. That allows you to create Purchase Orders you send to translators, make basic searches for language combination and service (translation, proofreading, etc.). You can also trace which invoices from translators are pending and which ones have been paid. The worst part are, as Kevin says, the backups, sending e-mails from your Outlook and searching for the pdf to attach to the emails... Projetex is a rather rudimentary tool compared to OTM, but a fairly competitive product. There's something I miss in OTM, though: the CATcount, counting words directly from Projetex. In the meantime I use PractiCount and Invoice for that purpose.

    OTM is turning into a big platform and you can get confused at first with so many options, buttons and menus... You might get tired with so many clicks, but they are worth it when you know you are not missing anything.

    As for the security, I don't see why translators are so afraid of confidenciality, while there software like QuickBooks (http://quickbooks.intuit.com/) on the market, where all the invoices and confidential data are kept on external servers. I think translators should approach to technology more as a help than as a thread...

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  10. Good evening, Kevin and all,
    Tatjana's comments sound extremely familiar to me - I was also wary about data security and availability, particularly since my business regularly involves handling confidential data that qualifies as inside information under applicable securities law.

    Having had the chance to gain an 'inside view' into how LSP.net operate, I was reassured and have been using OTM for more than a year now. What's more, I now consider the data stored in the 'RLFT part' of OTM as a backup that's available wherever I have a half-decent internet connection.

    Hope this answers a few concerns.

    Kind regards,
    Ralf

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  11. Hey Daniel, thanks for sharing your Projetex experience! My main issue with that option is that I would have to run my own server, and I really want to put all that behind me now. As for counts, I have been part of several discussions at LSP.net on that subject; it's an issue under consideration, but given the many methods people use, I think careful thought needs to be given to how to cope with it exactly without irritating many users. And many files I deal with cannot be counted effectively by common approaches, so for me it's a non-issue. (Think compound document: MS Word file with embedded Excel, Visio and PowerPoint objects, equations that need translation and lots of bitmaps to translate, of course. Go ahead - make my day.)

    Probably in the end LSP.net will do with counting what they did for price lists. I griped about that a lot for many months, because I missed that feature from LTC and TO3000, but the ultimate solution they found (templates) is far, far better than anything I knew or imagined.

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  12. Thanks, Kevin – I'll keep an eye on things and see what develops...

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  13. Hi everybody, I am always looking for a satisfactory TMS and after reading this article I wanted to try OTM, but after 1 hour since I submitted trial data, no account was activated.
    Is this the reaction time they have over there?

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  14. @Anon: It's not an automated process, and even support departments have been known to have meetings or other pressing matters. I wouldn't worry if screening and approval takes a few hours or until the next morning at the end of the business day in Germany. When you do get in, be sure to try the e-mail tutorial, and you might want to check out my YouTube video on a simple OTM process as well. It has a stupid editing error somewhere around the 10 minute mark, and the picture quality is the worst of all the videos I have done (it was my first ever), but it will give you a simpler overview than some other sources. (I may eventually re-do it when I find time.)

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  15. Yes, I know, it's an old post... Are you still a fan of OTM, Kevin? Or did other solutions manage to lure you away?

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    1. Yes, though I am waiting for the planned solution better tailored to my personal needs - Solista, which has been delayed as quite a few new agency features are added to OTM, and the various interfaces are made more mobile-friendly.The only thing OTM does not presently do that I really need is interface with the Portuguese financial system for issuing invoice certificates. They were working on that, but the people in the finance ministry broke their promise to communicate with the German developers in English, so it's rather behind in implementation work.

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