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.