Localization, product, & engineering: the Zendesk approach

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This post is provided by Ketty Tirrito, Localization Team Lead, and Sirisha Neduri, Senior Localization Quality Engineer at Zendesk.

Zendesk is a cloud-based application designed to improve communication between companies and their customers. For our global team and customers, how we connect and communicate matters most.

Founded in 2007, Zendesk was built on a simple idea: create a customer service solution that’s easy to use and accessible to everyone.

We expanded on that idea with a growing number of products that work together to improve customer relationships and can be embedded and extended with open development platforms.

In order to create these innovative products, we have to work seamlessly with our teams all around the world. As of 2021, we have 6,000 employees and over 111,000 customers, who speak over 30 international languages. This makes product localization an absolute priority for our customers.

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Globalization at Zendesk

Zendesk’s Globalization department is made up of two teams: the internationalization team, which is the engineering side, and the localization team, which is responsible for delivering localized content. The two work in tandem to invest in scalability, flexibility, and automation to serve customers’ international needs.

Our 24-person globalization team is located across four continents, five countries, and 10 different time zones. We speak over 12 languages collectively.

The internationalization team was created in 2012, and by 2017 it grew beyond the U.S. in order to foster better collaborations with multiple local engineering teams.

In 2017 we created a new localization team under the program management team, while internationalization remained part of the engineering team. Our engineers build and maintain the software and infrastructure that powers our customer-facing products. We have over 1,400 engineers in eight countries.

In 2019, the localization team moved to the product management department. This allowed the team even more visibility of our products’ life cycle.

In 2020, the localization and internationalization teams joined forces to become the globalization team we have today.

What are the biggest localization challenges?

Localization awareness
Why does localization matter? Localization awareness is a constant challenge. Usually localization is de-prioritized while engineering teams work on other higher priority features.

Team growth and priorities
As our company and product demand both grow, we have a lot of new engineering teams. While it’s exciting, of course, that also means varying levels of understanding for our best practices or localization workflows across teams.

More engineers means developing more products and features at a quicker pace, and it’s difficult for us to scale up to support all of them. Sometimes we aren’t able to engage with those teams before new features are released. Some products have more issues than others, which impacts our product globalization prospects.

There are also different project management approaches or deployment schedules throughout various teams. Some product teams have shorter, two-week sprint cycles, but others might have four-week sprint cycles. This can make it difficult for our localization teams to support everyone’s schedules and needs.

There are other constraints, such as strings being hard coded and not externalized, and other layout issues as well.

How to find localization success

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Engage upper management and teams

It's extremely important to have our upper management team really engaged with us right from the start of product development. That way, we can identify where the globalization team can support optimizing localized content. We use data to guide these conversations: how many customers are using the products in languages that are not English? What revenue is generated from non-English speaking customers?

Aiming to unify teams from the get-go, our globalization team helps onboard new engineers. This helps the new hires quickly understand how our collaborations will work.

We also have “refreshers” for individual scrum teams or new hires: this content covers our mission and how we work with various stakeholders in product development.

Additionally, we produce a bi-annual localization globalization newsletter that provides team updates, achievements, and insights. This helps remind key stakeholders of our mission, strategy, and goals so that it’s always top of mind.

Every year, Zendesk holds a tech summit for engineers and product managers, and the globalization team joins in to share knowledge and discuss collaboration.

We have a dedicated team, the internationalization team, that oversees the global readiness of our products. They also help maintain and manage our translation tools and educate our engineers. They handle IT and related issues or international coding issues as well as localization best practices.

Conquer design and translation issues

We involve the internationalization team to solve any complex design challenges. For example, one of our products involved multiple languages and integrations, so we needed support for design and development.

Given we have a geo-distributed team, we need to create consistent workflows. Documentation is essential to our team because we need a point of reference that can be shared across the teams. We try to document everything targeting product engineering design teams and for ourselves. We also have dedicated communication channels with language experts who are directly available to help.

In the discovery phase, we learn about the feature, team, and project components and review best practices. Then we can determine international suitability and engage in feature renaming, if needed. (For example, “uh oh” in English doesn’t translate clearly to other languages.) We also advise avoiding initials with the icons because some cultures don't use initials.

We regularly check strings for any source context or localizability issues that might impact translations. For example, placeholders need to have clear names to provide enough context to the translators. We control churn by identifying potential hiccups before sending them to the translators.

We also look at product development progress during this stage and try to plan downstream activities like translation and testing. During the translation we try to supervise the quality by doing some quality checks. We also answer any of the translators’ context-related questions. Then we do internationalization testing and linguistic testing to verify the localized product is working as expected.

Lastly, we do another round of regression testing before releasing the product.

Teaming up

Being organized and communicative is key for working together globally.

Our internationalization team maintains a centralized database containing all the English UI copy and translations. This makes it very easy for the globalization team to control the streams across all of our products, plus it gives some peace of mind to the engineering teams.

We also use a fixed localization schedule, which allows for more regular and manageable translation projects. This reduces the number of last minute and urgent requests and allows the engineering teams to know exactly when completed translations will be available.

Another important strategy is quality assurance, both internally and with vendors. Way ahead of the product’s release is when we can identify the most pressing issues in functionality, UI, and language. We help the engineering team prioritize the most crucial bugs to fix. It’s important to analyze data in order to identify the most recurring issues and how we can prevent them in the future.

We take a one team approach, having a localization team really embedded in every scrum team that we work with. We do that by attending team meetings, planning meetings, and joint testing sessions. For example, you would have the English team working on testing the English UI, while the localization team tests the internationalized versions.

Zendesk is all about investing in good relationships — in the localization team we really take that to heart. We partner with the key stakeholders of the entire product organization to identify those perfect synergies that will have excellent results.

It’s also very important to engage in social activities to build better teamwork. Those well-connected relationships help strengthen teams and lead to better localization.

Key takeaways

  1. Engage key stakeholders as early as possible.

    Start the localization process early. Utilize data to help upper managers understand why localization matters and explain best practices.

  2. Provide team support.

    Support any teams that need guidance on localization. Participate in onboarding engineers and explaining how you’ll collaborate across teams. Provide tools, training, and ongoing, open communication channels to answer questions.

  3. Create clear priorities for your localization team.

    The localization team must ensure best practices are upheld at each stage of a project. Identify the most critical points where the localization team should jump in and review progress.

  4. Invest in relationships.

    By working closely with the engineering team at Zendesk, we’ve found that successful localization is rooted in great relationships. Those connections are the most crucial investments.

View Ketty and Sirisha’s full presentation here.

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