January 2012

Hey, liberal arts majors: there may be a new career for you in high tech. Don’t worry; it doesn’t require heavy duty programming or analytical skills. And your years of French or Russian? They’re an asset (when did you last hear that?). Ditto your love of world travel. Even better, it builds on your interest in how people live and learn across the globe.

Software localization is a little-known but growing profession: Companies from Microsoft to Getty Images need help in adapting products or services for use in different languages and locales. And you may be better positioned than you realize to break into this expanding and well-paying field. 

I’d never heard of the profession until University of Washington Professional & Continuing Education (where I worked at the time) launched a certificate program that welcomes career changers as well as techies. I was intrigued. Could I, an English major and PR professional with everyday computer skills, segue into localization? I went to Microsoft’s Carla DiFranco to learn more. DiFranco, a senior localization professional, serves on the certificate program’s advisory board. 

“Language experience and knowledge of other cultures is helpful in understanding a lot of the concepts of localization right out of the gate,” said DiFranco. “But IT experience is not necessary, especially because there are project manager roles as well as software engineering positions.”

In addition to language translation, localization professionals address details such as time zones, local currency, national holidays, images and colors (for issues of comprehensibility and cultural appropriateness), gender roles, and geographic examples. Varying legal requirements can be an issue.

Localization may even require a comprehensive rethinking of software design or presentation, if the way of doing business (for example, accounting practices) or the preferred learning style (such as focus on individual vs. group learning) differs substantially depending on locale. The range of factors involved makes the job fascinating—and also opens it up to professionals of different backgrounds.  

As for tech background: If you have command of Microsoft Office products, good web research skills, and a little aptitude for tech learning, you can pick up the rest on the job, says DiFranco. Experience with basic HTML is “nice but not necessary,” she said. “It’s a soft way to enter the tech industry.”

If you’re considering a career change, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2009 report calls localization “a rapidly expanding specialty.” It forecasts that through the year 2018 “there should be demand for specialists in localization, driven by imports and exports and the expansion of the Internet.” 

DiFranco agreed with that assessment. The job outlook for localization professionals is “not bad, actually,” she told me. “There are positions available for project managers as well as software engineers, on the vendor as well as the client side.” 

She estimated that salaries range from 60k to 100k depending on the company and experience level. “The problem is that there are very few localization training programs in the U.S., so it’s hard to find folks that can start in a junior position with a little assistance, right away.”

To learn more about the fundamentals of  this profession and whether it might be for you, you can register for a free on-demand webinar, “Localization 101: Getting Started with Localization” presented by Lionbridge.

Remember the “Friends” episode where Chandler gets an advertising internship and feels out of place because of his age? I could be wrong, but I’m getting an image of him on roller sneakers, running into walls while “researching” the product assigned to his intern team. Turns out there are a lot of Chandlers out there.  

That’s based on a CareerBuilder and Harris Interactive survey of more than 2500 hiring managers in 2010. Among the findings: nearly a quarter (23 percent) of employers reported interest in internships from workers with more than ten years of experience.

“Internships are no longer just for college students and recent graduates,” notes a U.S. News magazine article on the survey. “Experienced workers are increasingly applying for internships to network at a desirable company or change careers.”

I thought of Chandler again on the last day of a continuing education program I’d enrolled in, a University of Washington certificate program in advanced interactive marketing. Each of our five student teams had consulted for a client over the past six months and now we were presenting our final marketing plans to the executives of “our” companies. And Chandler would have fit right in.

Unlike Chandler’s fellow interns, we were all working adults with years of professional experience. We ranged in age from about 25 to 50 with the bulk of us in our 30s and early 40s.  UW program advisors say that students in its certificate courses often learn as much from each other as they do from the instructors and that was true in our class.

Take my group, team Moving Comfort (Moving Comfort is a Seattle-based supplier of women’s fitness apparel for national and international markets). We were united in our interest in the company and its product line but as individuals brought different skills and knowledge to the table.

Two of us had direct marketing experience in the outdoor industry, a great jumping off point. Thank goodness for the teammate who shared her expertise in search engine optimization. I profess undying gratitude to our resident MBA—not only did she perform needed quantitative analysis, she patiently taught us some of the basics, too. And bless the designated project manager who kept us on track. Experience in PR, blogging, client relations…the list of our aggregated skills goes on.     

Even so, Chandler with his expertise in statistical analysis and data reconfiguration would have contributed another dimension to the marketing plan we developed. (No, I didn’t remember what he’d done for a living either—I read it in an episode plot summary.)

Perhaps the best part? Chandler wouldn’t have had to quit his day job—our class and team meetings were scheduled nights and weekends. No strange looks from acquaintances or former colleagues to make him doubt himself. No roller sneaker projects here, either. Other clients included an upscale grocery chain launching a catering service and a startup quality apparel company targeting tall men.

My experience is far from unique. A good number of certificate programs accessible to working adults in the Seattle metropolitan area are built around a practicum or “capstone project.” Read course descriptions carefully to identify them. For example, offerings from UW Professional & Continuing Education range from a course pairing IT professionals with clients seeking cyber security strategies to a fiber arts program that culminates in mounting of an exhibit.     

If you’d like to pursue a traditional internship experience at mid-career, check out InternsOver40, a website that reports more than 500,000 visitors in 2011.  But remember that there’s an excellent alternative for adults with career and life history to build on.