Dinosaurs, Grandmas & Artificial Intelligence: Interview with Volodymyr Kukharenko on Smartcat & Protemos integration

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The Smartcat ecosystem grows and develops. Thanks to new useful tools in it, the translation process becomes more technologically advanced, yet simple and convenient. We have just completed the first integration stage with the translation project management system Protemos. Now, this system’s corporate users can easily create projects both in Protemos and Smartcat.

Translated by Pavel Razgulyaev

Pavel (Product Analyst at Smartcat) and Arseniy (Head of Marketing) have talked to CEO at Protemos, Volodymyr Kukharenko. It turned out to be an interesting and lively conversation proving that finding like-minded people is the key in our business. After all, not only did Volodymyr strongly support the idea at negotiation stage, but his view of technology development and the world as a whole is very similar to ours too.

Arseniy: Hello, Volodymyr! Please, tell the readers of our blog what Protemos is and how it was born. By the way, which syllable is stressed here?

Volodymyr: I stress the first one. It’s not written anywhere, but we are used to saying “Protemos”.

Arseniy: People pronounce our name “Smartcat” differently, too: some say “smartc[a]t”, and other say “smartc[ae]t”. Although, the correct variant is smartc[ae]t, of course. If I’m not mistaken, you started developing your own TMS (Translation Management System — editor’s note) while working for a translation company, didn’t you?

Volodymyr: Yes, it was an internal product at a translation agency called Technolex Translation Studio. The story is similar to yours, as your product has been born at ABBYY. At that time, we were using XTRF system for project management. But eventually, we’ve come to realize that this solution didn’t quite satisfy us. We started looking for other options, but couldn’t find anything suitable. At that moment, I knew that it was time to realize my creative ambitions. By that time, I had worked in two similar systems and always believed that it’s possible to make a better and more convenient product. There also was often this problem with training managers, some things were simply incomprehensible to most users, including myself. That’s how the work on Protemos has begun. Actually, it wasn’t our first product. Six years ago, we released the desktop software called Change Tracker.

Pavel: As far as I know, it’s still popular.

Volodymyr: Yes, this software compares files before and after editing, and generates reports of corrections that can be used in translator training or as a proof that the text has been edited. We have created Change Tracker for our own needs, but it was immediately clear to us that such convenient tools should be shared. So we’ve built a simple website, put the software online and offered to download it for free. Only after a few years, we’ve found out that in total it was downloaded more than 12,000 times. Later, Change Tracker has transformed into TQAuditor: A system that, in addition to comparing files, automates the process of providing feedback to translators, simplifies their training, and also allows translation companies to conduct effective monitoring of translator work quality. This system was our second product, and we had been using it for more than four years. At some point, we’ve started to contact TMS developers, but they were not interested in integration prospects. This was another reason to start developing our own TMS. So there were three reasons. The first was the company’s business need to have a simple and efficient tool without restrictions on the number of licenses and other inconveniences. The second was that, at some point, working as the head of the agency, I’ve found myself bored and decided to create something new. And the third was the inability of integration with our first software.

Pavel: Recently, there was a webinar at the GALA website, discussing similar cases. Representatives of TextMinded, Translate Plus and Inter Translations demonstrated their TMS. And there was an interesting question about whether such internal products can actually go to market and become available for commercial use. What would you say about Protemos in this regard?

Volodymyr: No system can suit everyone right away. Obviously, each company has its own processes and nuances. But, on the other hand, it is naïve to think that there are cases that are absolutely unique. Initially, the system was created for Technolex, but there are similar processes in other companies. We were trying to find out which functions it lacked, and which were in the most demand. If you are a startup founder, it’s foolish to think that you know things better than the users do. The main thing at the start is imagination, it gives you a vision. But later, when the first users appear, you start receiving information about real problems and shortcomings, as well as valuable advice and suggestions. As feedback is collected, the team adjusts the development plans. We have just started the active promotion stage, and before that, the information was spreading by itself. Of course, in comparison with such market “dinosaurs” as XTRF and Plunet we are mere beginners, only few people know us for now, but we can already talk some numbers. We’ve just started selling licenses, and at the moment, more than ten companies regularly use Protemos.

Pavel: By the way, talking about “dinosaurs”. You said that easy-to-use functionality and ease of learning were the priorities for you. We have a similar approach in Smartcat. We aim to make an easily accessible tool that would allow you to start working immediately without spending time on learning all the features, so that the product itself would prompt the user how to act. But you’ve also mentioned the necessity to develop functionality, add new features. But as you progress in the development, there is a risk of becoming a “dinosaur” yourself. What do we mean by “dinosaurs”? It’s the systems with lots of features, but a complex and inconvenient user interface. In our team, we often argue about how to make a new feature user-friendly, considering that in every existing product this very feature is not user-friendly at all. Actually, it is difficult to find a balance between simplicity and functionality. Do you think you’re succeeding in it?

Volodymyr: This issue often sparks discussions in our team too. In general, we believe that the main interface should remain unchanged, with additional features included if necessary. This is what we did in our case: the Protemos—Smartcat integration can be activated in the menu. Perhaps, we will be changing the interface, but we definitely don’t want to overload it with those elements that are unnecessary. In the near future, we’re planning to allow users to create the fields they need. For example, if someone needs their client’s profile to include their grandmother’s birthday, it will be possible.

Pavel: We’re going to need to think what to do with the grandmother’s birthday information when synchronizing projects with Smartcat. As far as I understand, Smartcat is the first translation solution you have integrated with, is it so? Tell me, what was your motivation for this?

Volodymyr: It’s obvious for us that cloud-based CAT tools are the future. It was thanks to one of our mutual user, that you and us have made good communication right away. His name is Christian, he actively works in both Protemos and Smartcat. He is our good friend. Thanks to him, we’ve got to know you and then met you at your Partner Day. It has given us strong momentum, we’ve finally decided to develop in this direction.

Arseniy: You’ve made one good point. Last year, it became clear to us that Smartcat had outgrown the CAT tool format, and that we need to build an ecosystem around our product. Successful Protemos integration indicates that this concept is developing. In addition to our product being convenient, we also want the user interaction with other systems to be as native and simple as possible. Now, creating a new project and uploading files to both systems can be performed in one action. All data is synchronized on the fly, and you can immediately start working with it. This is an example of an amazingly effective business process. Machines communicate with each other and manage the routine, while users deal with the tasks that can’t be solved without human participation.

Volodymyr: No doubt, it is one of the main integration advantages. In addition to the ease of entering data, the chance of errors decreases, meaning that the user has more time for really important things.

Pavel: So project managers will be able to make more money. Speaking of managers, a TMS is always a B2B product, because most of the users are usually translation agencies. Still, you have a free version for freelancers. How can Protemos be useful to them?

Volodymyr: When leading multiple projects, tracking deadlines, keeping financial records becomes your routine, the system approach is a necessity, otherwise you can just get caught up in the mess. With a TMS you can track all the processes. Not every client has enough discipline. The system can report about emerging issues and offer solutions. It also gives you regular business reports for analysis and planning. Thus, having managing skills, a successful freelancer can become an agency.

Pavel: Indeed, once freelancers increase their volumes, it often becomes a struggle for them to do business single-handedly. By the way, we have a Facebook community specially for the translators who have evolved from freelancers to small LSPs (language service providers) or are willing to do so.

Volodymyr: The system is quite easy to understand, so we hope that some freelancers will give it a try and then decide to upgrade to the extended version. Besides, companies that receive invoices and letters from freelancers can learn about the system through them and become interested in it.

Pavel: We have not yet been able to make Protemos integration available for freelancers due to technical challenges. Currently, any freelancer can get a free LSP profile in Smartcat to test it and also think of becoming an LSP. Here’s another question. We don’t sell licenses, earning mainly from transactions between users. Is it a viable business model for a TMS, and do you compete with open and free systems like GlobalSight?

Volodymyr: When it comes to competition, you need to understand which functions are present in both products. Of course, we compete with some popular systems, but we have our own niche, in my opinion. We’re focusing on two categories of customers. The first includes small and medium businesses that want to ditch Excel spreadsheets in favor of a professional project management system, thus, optimizing their workflow process. And the second category consists of those who have already been using other solutions, but find them too complex and inconvenient.

Pavel: Talking about switching from one product to another. With Smartcat, we often face prejudices against cloud-based solutions. Some companies have already built all their processes on desktop tools and are afraid of cloud technology for various reasons. Apparently, they don’t quite understand how it works and therefore they refuse to even try. Do you have experience dealing with such prejudices?

Volodymyr: We’re familiar with this problem too, and there is no other way but to explain everything patiently and in detail. First, almost everything is in the cloud today. Second, in terms of data security, any desktop program can be even less reliable, especially if the device running the solution is connected to the Internet. In the future, those clients that worry about data security and don’t trust our arguments, will have an option of installing our system to their server.

Pavel: We also have an standalone solution, and it really takes care of some of the issues for our customers.

Volodymyr: Technology doesn’t stand still, so, again, time will fix these problems.

Pavel: By the way, talking about technology: in Smartcat, you can monitor projects using a bot. Now, there’s also a lot of talk that neural networks and machine learning are the future. What do you think about such solutions? Are you planning to move in this direction?

Volodymyr: Yes, we are considering such ideas. The other day, I thought about whether a machine can make decisions about assigning tasks, take an active part in project coordination. If a manager delegates some tasks to a chatbot or some kind of task distribution algorithm, the work can become more efficient. However, you can’t entrust everything to robots, and there is also a human factor to consider. Many people prefer working with real people rather than a system or an anonymous user account. From my own experience, I can say that my most successful cooperation has always been with the clients with whom I had managed to establish human communication. Nonetheless, such solutions can simplify the work that requires uniform, predictable actions.

Pavel: Some translators believe the development of machine translation technology will steal their jobs. But widgets and other tools that automate the receiving and processing of orders can indeed replace project managers, so I think it’s them who should be afraid of AI, not translators.

Volodymyr: In the long run, smart technologies will automate some part of what we do, if you ask me. But for that to work, our society will require a different approach to distribution of wealth. I hope, robotic automation will allow us to have the same income, or even higher, while working less. The machines have been taking away jobs throughout the history of humanity. The tractor has taken the jobs from those plowing the land. When weaving looms appeared, people were furiously throwing their shoes at them. This has happened at every stage, and people were holding this fear through the whole technological revolution. But what do we see now? Life’s got better! I think this trend will continue in the future.

Pavel: I hope nobody will throw their shoes at us! In conclusion of our future-inspired conversation, I would like you to tell us about those upgrades that are planned for the near future. What features of your product will benefit your users the most and why?

Volodymyr: Our users often ask us to introduce custom adjustment for various functions. To modify the invoice template, to provide additional fields, to hide the table columns. Customization, in one form or another, is at the top of the request list. Requests for the workflow automation go next to it: people want the system to perform some actions autonomously. And in general, we will integrate not only with translation solutions, but also with CRM systems, sales funnel tools, file storage services, and accounting software.

Pavel: So, you’re building your ecosystem, which will eventually connect to our ecosystem, and one day we might have a meta-ecosystem.

Volodymyr: Yes, I think technology is moving in this direction. Single-purpose tools performing tasks without interacting with other software will eventually become extinct, because such tools do not allow transferring data across the systems, making their users feel isolated.

Pavel: That’s an interesting thought. Thank you, it was nice to talk to you!

Volodymyr: Thank you, guys. See you soon!