An In-Depth Unconference Report

An In-Depth Unconference Report
Show up. Participate. Be there. That’s all you need to do to make an unconference worth your time. But that doesn’t explain why unconferences are so popular in the language industry. Join Renato and Michael as they interview three industry pros who discuss how unconferences benefit LSPs. Learn how to make your own unconference successful.
Download episode
Show transcript


Speaker Transcript
Renato I am Renato Beninatto.
Michael And I’m Michael Stevens.
Renato Today, we’re going to talk about unconferences, in general, and especially in the language industry.
Michael So, we are talking about conferences?
Renato No, “un-conferences.’
Michael Unconferences, okay, because conferences are expensive, they take a long time to get to, it’s hard to convince managers for the budget, often.
Renato The idea of the unconference was actually born from that business problem that you describe. It’s an alternative to the traditional conference where you have to have a structured agenda, you have keynote speakers and you have coffee breaks; you have call for papers, you have sponsors, exhibitors, all that stuff.
Michael And you get to see people from a distance and the keynotes usually come in and leave right after they talk so you don’t even… maybe you get their LinkedIn or something, who knows.
Renato Absolutely. So, unconferences started late in the ‘90s with the IT people. I think that the first unconference was actually around XML development.
Michael And so for this episode we’ve interviewed some people who have taken this concept that was outside the localization industry and they’ve made it relevant to people who know about languages.
Renato And we started with Teresa Marshall. And we will let her introduce herself.
Teresa I’m senior director of localization at Salesforce. I’m responsible for product localization which means pretty much everything except for marketing. I have a couple of roles within Salesforce, so I own localization but I’m also the product owner for the globalization team. So, I own internationalization infrastructure. That’s relatively new, we’re sort of reviving that effort which is really exciting.

Apart from that I’m also on the board of Women in Localization.
Michael Okay, so you have that role. You’ve done some teaching.
Teresa I’ve done some teaching. I taught a course called “localization as a profession” at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, for about four years, I think.
Renato Where does this unconference idea come from?
Teresa I have to admit that it was not my idea. But, you have to have the ability to pick up good ideas when they fit what you want to do.

When I joined Salesforce, just before I joined them, my manager Shawna Wolverton got together with Ultan O’Brien and had this idea that part of what’s really fun about conferences, whether it’s Localization World or whether it’s a Salesforce big Dreamforce event, or something like that, part of the fun is always that networking ability, the time that you have as you grab a cup of coffee, or you head to dinner, or you end up in the bar after the conference and then most of the interesting conversations typically happen from there. So, they were looking for a format to really focus those conversations.

They did the first unconference, I think in 2008, and then when I joined we were thinking about trying to do that again but both my manager had moved on and Ultan, I think, had moved to Ireland again, so it was a little bit harder. But, we had a great space because we have office space available and so we just tried it again. The idea is really that you have… I think the most organization that goes into that is finding that space and getting people to show up but there’s no need to prepare for it, there’s no need to find speakers or put out a call for papers. You really have to be, I guess, good at just sort of winging it and that really took off. And we’ve done one very year since I started and for five years we’ve done an unconference track at LocWorld as well.
Renato What during this several years that you’ve been doing this at venues and events, what are some of the recurring topics and some of the weird topics that come up in this conversation.
Teresa It really depends where it is, I have to say, and not so much in terms of the venue but like you said, who’s in the audience. So, a unconference in Asia is completely different from a unconference in Silicon Valley or even the ones that we had in Europe with LocWorld, what we generally see is it’s definitely buzzword-centric. So, whatever is going on in the industry that year is definitely something that comes up. So, when the industry is talking about IoT and what that means for localization, then that comes up. And it comes up in different variations. It’s either “oh, I’ve been tasked with something related to that” or it’s somebody who says “I keep hearing that term and I don’t know what it is”. So, it’s actually a great form for people to interact very…
Renato IoT is internet of things… you’re talking a buzzword.
Teresa This is exactly true. I actually meant buzzwords in a good way, in what is moving the minds of the industry. One of my favorite unconference sessions was, I think, at LocWorld in Seattle and I think it was one of the first ones we did in combination with LocWorld. And one of the later ones in the day. And, I think you were in the room; there were a number of people in the room with long years of experience; they had been round the block not just once but a couple of times and really had seen the industry from different angles, had worked on the vendor side, on the client side, had moved through a number of Silicon Valley companies and big corporations and smaller companies and everything. So, I think we had about 30 people in the room.

And, when we do the unconference at LocWorld we don’t have the luxury of setting an agenda at the beginning of the day but we sort of set it at the beginning of that session. It’s always a little chaotic but that’s part of the fun, right? So, we’re going around the room – and I think there were many other topics – but somebody said “you know what, I’m new to this industry and I don’t really know what I don’t know”. And it was this young guy who was in a sales position for, I think, an LSP and it sort of sparked this sharing of information across this group of 30 people and with somebody like you who has a lot of experience and then other people who were just starting out.

And I can remember just his eyes going wide and I think he wanted to record it, probably, because there was so much information in that. What I liked about it and why it was one of my favorite sessions is it was so easy for this newbie in the industry to have an informal conversation with you and with a number of people…

Going back to your earlier question of the differences, I saw a difference in venue. So, typically, when we do it at Salesforce we do it down the peninsula in Silicon Valley close to Silicon Valley. Last year it was in San Francisco, so the audience was made up of a larger diversity in terms of roles; and that was really interesting and that takes the entire day or entire session into a slightly different topic. So, if you have, let’s say, a bunch of program managers in the room and they want to talk about MT, it’s a completely different conversation than if you have a bunch of engineers in the room and they want to talk about MT. It makes it really interesting. It’s also a little bit tiring because you have to be so on your feet that you can pick up where the conversation is going.
Michael It sounds like there’s a lot of variance between whether it’s at LocWorld or whether it’s independently hosted, who actually shows up, you’re setting the agenda together, what are the consistent things, you mentioned some people who show up consistently, what are some other consistent themes?
Teresa I think a couple of things that are just principles of the unconference…

Typically when we do the unconference it’s a standalone. We dedicate about an hour to finding the topics and we write them all down; it’s very democratic process; we invite them to vote on the individual topics and then we wrangle the number of topics that have the highest votes into an agenda. Quite often we have two or three different tracks that we run simultaneously.
Michael Usually about how many people, what’s the audience variance on that?
Teresa Over the years anywhere between 50 and 120. 120 was the biggest one we did and that’s almost at a point where it’s so big that it’s hard to manage and you lose that very casual momentum that drives that conversation. So, 50 is a really good number; that gives people a lot of topics to choose from; that’s why we have a number of tracks; and it doesn’t disrupt the conversation too much when somebody says “hey this is not for me I’m out of here”.
Michael They can probably take some of the things they learned in a session and go deeper with it in some…
Teresa Yes and that happens quite often that something from the keynote will come in and be part of a topic that gets picked up for one of the sessions.
Renato I remember in London the lead sponsor was Capita, they had new leadership.
Teresa That was an awesome unconference.
Renato That was an awesome unconference because we had a lot of leaders, CEOs and executives from LSPs in the room and Capita was coming with this concept of, every once in a while, every two years, somebody comes with this great idea that we need to change the pricing model from per word to something that nobody knows what it is. And, this guy who came from outside the industry had this novel idea that I heard for the first time in 1992, to charge by the hour and then have set margin of… it would be like a 20% management fee on top of the cost for the project. And I think it was a very lively discussion. And it depends on the people that are in the room and…
Michael You start talking about pay and it gets very lively.
Teresa London was a great unconference altogether. I think the other session at London all of a sudden dissolved into a conversation about poor people in India having to sell their kidneys and how crowdsourcing within the localization industry was just the same practice. And it sometimes gets really touchy. So, I only had two or three where I was thinking “how do I stop this if it actually trends into this revolt or aggressive kind of violent behavior.” Thankfully that never really happens.
Renato Talking about kidneys and crowdsourcing—that files under weird!
Teresa Oh yes, absolutely. That was definitely… that was definitely one of the weirder ones.

I just remember that was so passionate. I mean, money typically gets tempers a little bit high but that particular year, and I think this is about 2012, maybe, so crowdsourcing at that point had been around for a while and it was funny that it was still such a passionate topic. It’s definitely one that I’ve seen change over the years where it used to be not at all embraced and now when it comes up as a topic it’s more like “how do I do it?” It’s not like “oh, this sucks and we shouldn’t be doing it” it’s more like “how do I get in on that”. And that makes it really interesting because you can see over the years different topics. So, MT is always part of it. Pricing is one that we actually try to stay away from. But when it comes up we’re not saying no.
Alex My name is Alex, my full name is a little more interesting, it’s Oleksandr Pysaryuk. I come from Ukraine and right now I live in Canada. I am the manager of Localization at a Toronto-based company called Achievers. I have been with achievers for the past three and a half years. Before that I was doing localization at Blackberry for four years. With colleagues from Blackberry, I co-organize the Toronto Unconference, it’s the Canadian addition of the one that’s run by Teresa Marshall in the US.
Renato What are the most recurring topics that you get and is there anything out of the norm or something weird that has come up in your unconferences?
Alex We do get a variety of topics. It depends on who shows up for the unconference. Since we are in Toronto we had attendees from Quebec, various translation bureaux, it’s Canada, Francophones, so there were topics about translation into French from French, bilingualism, that is what comes up in Canada. Otherwise, something that’s interesting is always coming up. for example, educating the customer on the localization subject or career paths in localization. This year we had graduates and younger people at the unconference, fresh graduates, who are looking to get into localization or are working and it’s their first job, so careers in localization and paths was a hot topic.
Mirko My name is Mirko Plitt; I’m the founder of Modulo Language Automation in Switzerland and I’ve organized or co-organized unconferences. The first one in Switzerland; and then a second one in Munich, Germany; and we’re about to have one at the end of June, again, in Germany.

I really tried to do it professionally, thinking we are in Switzerland and I have to do something really proper and organized and we got 100 people in some federal agency here in Switzerland so very great facilities and great attendance and I think it was really more a professional event than unconferences typically are which has advantages and disadvantages. But, I think, at the time it was really I saw an opportunity or need for something in Switzerland, specifically, with its multilingual language situation and there is not a lot of exchange between the difference actors in Switzerland across the different linguistic regions, which is interesting you know—events for German speaking translators and events for French speaking and probably Italian speaking but not so much for everyone all together.
Renato And was that the idea, to do one for all three major languages in Switzerland? And were you able to make that happen?
Mirko Yes, the idea for me was really to bring together everyone who was involved with translation, independently from their occupation, you know, independently from the fact that they’re translators or, maybe, translation managers in LSPs or maybe in companies or even federal translation departments because you have them in Switzerland; or whether they’re in German speaking, French speaking or Italian speaking Switzerland. And it was really quite novel from that point of view and that’s why it drew so many different people. But, it was a great event; it was a lot of work, though, as well. So, yes, that was the Swiss one. For the German one the history was a little bit different. It was the initiative by the other organizers who had contributed previously to organizing ones in Dublin and wanted to do a similar thing in Germany. And, basically, they just asked me if I wanted to help out, so I did.
Renato And what were the topics that came up for discussion when you set up the meeting.
Mirko The Swiss one. Payment was a very important topic for people. You know, I know it sounds quite mundane but given the situation of Switzerland and currency exchange because Switzerland, of course, is not part of the Euro market, so currency exchange rates and in general the level of payment and the ability of companies or the tendency of companies to more and more outsource outside Switzerland is something that is a common issue and then, also, payments…
Renato It sounds so weird to me that a conference in Switzerland would talk about money; I don’t see the connection between the two! How about what other topics would come up, what topics are interesting for that part of Europe in addition to payment?
Mirko Yes, there was a lot; at the time certainly machine translation was a hot topic. It was a couple of years ago, already; I think people have generally become a bit more, say, the hype is a little bit behind us and people have a better understanding of how real the threat for them, individually, is or not. But, at the time it was a quite hot and conflictual topic, machine translation. And then, generally, technology for instance, how to manage technology and so on, some of the more traditional practice questions. And that was great for me to discover how people have been working successfully for, sometimes, decades in big organizations, big companies, big federal offices here who do a lot of translation because for legal reasons they have to; and it’s not like they hadn’t developed their own good practices. In the industry where I was coming from we often didn’t really know what they were doing so that was pretty good exchange as well. I think those were probably the most prominent topics, as far as I recall.
Teresa There’s really just two principles with an unconference. One is that we don’t want that divide in the industry so you’re not allowed to sell. You can’t come in and say “hey, here is your problem I want to talk about, and by the way I solved it so you should all come buy my service”. And at the same time you can’t solicit services either. You can’t go in “hey, I’m company X and I’m looking for a new vendor, come…”
Michael You can’t run your RFP or RFI through the unconference.
Teresa We want it to be a really open discussion and free flow without having some of it constrained. I think one of the weirder ones was where both Scott and I at the same time got up to flank one particular person of a technology provider and basically sort of whispered, “if you do that again we’re going to make you leave” which is kind of weird.

So, the first one is no selling, no buying.
Alex No selling and no buying, just expert opinions.
Renato Very good, that’s nice and short.
Teresa The second one is if it’s not your topic, not something you voted for, not something that is interesting or even if the discussion goes in a different direction and you say “well, I know this; this is not interesting to me,” you are encouraged to get up and find another session. So, we call it the principle of your feet. So, if it’s not something that interests you, we all value our time so it’s totally fine to get up and move out.
Michael We should adopt that principle in more places than just the unconference because that’s a really good principle.
Teresa And it takes a while to get used to it and not be like personally offended when somebody gets up and walks out. I often at the back of my mind am like “what, is it because we’re not introducing the concept right” so at the beginning it’s always this kind of moment, and now I’ve done it so often that I actually congratulate this person in my brain and say “good, find something that is more useful for you” which is great. I like that.
Alex One of the rules is vote with your feet.
Renato What does that mean?
Alex That means if you don’t like something, leave the room. But, if you love it come back or stay. Your feet are your vote.
Mirko But, for me actually, the important rule is that you don’t really have a leader of any of these sessions, you know, it’s really everyone who participates and it’s not an opportunity for someone to display their, maybe, superior knowledge or preparation, even; and most importantly that they don’t come out with something prepared like a PowerPoint slide or so. For me that’s really the most important rule.

The other one but it’s maybe more a question of actual practice that you have a session with everyone together at the beginning where you decide on the sessions for the day. I know that in principle the alternative ways of doing this by to do this over the internet in advance. I’m not sure how that would work in localization but having this meeting with everyone initially where you decide what you’re going to discuss, in itself, is already very valuable interesting exchange, you know, to see what’s important to people, even if it’s not important to you and you don’t want to discuss it but to see what’s important to others.
Michael So, how much do you get paid for the unconference, Teresa? Let’s get to the heart of this.
Teresa I’m going to plead the 5th on that one… nothing…
Michael It is a volunteer organization.
Teresa It is definitely a volunteer organization.
Michael What do you personally get out of leading the unconference?
Alex We get, well personally, just in reaching my own knowledge about the local community of localizers in Toronto, in Canada, it’s new connections; it’s mutual invitations; they might invite me over to appear in one of their conferences.
Michael I have a question for you. You are giving your free time, voluntarily to do this, what is it you get out of it?
Mirko I think there are different things, sometimes it’s quite satisfactory as well to organize something that is successful, you know, and if it’s a free event, if there’s not really a commercial purpose behind it, you get a lot of good feedback as well, people really thank you as well and you can see that. I had people who came to me and said this is the first event I’ve been to in 10 years and I’m so isolated as a translator and it’s so great, finally, to have an opportunity to exchange with others. Or others who came and said it’s been the most productive event for them that they’ve been to in yonks. So, that in itself is already great.

The other thing, I think in terms of networking it’s very powerful. It’s not really why I did it but I think it’s very powerful, probably more so than other conferences because you actually participate actively. So, naturally, even though it’s people who are maybe let’s say a bit more introverts will have an opportunity to really exchange with others which, in other conferences, you may not end up doing. You sit in an audience and maybe you find a topic interesting or not so but you’re not necessarily involved in a discussion with others and unless you are good at networking around outside the actual talks you may not actually be doing that much networking.

And the unconferences for that, I think, are amazingly effective, really.
Renato So, Michael, today we talked Unconferences and the people that are organizing them around the world. But, this concept is quite widespread in the translation and localization industry. I have personally attended conferences in the ALC which is the American Association of Language Companies, at ELIA the European Language Industry Association, and the UATC. Sometimes these associations will even hire professional mediators to get the unconference going.
Mirko Yes. My experience has been pretty in-depth as well. At most LocWorlds I spend the majority of hours in the unconference sessions. I got to go to Toronto for the first one that Alex put on and it is just amazing that these people, who have pretty intense jobs to begin with, will volunteer their time because they’re so passionate about it. so, you know something good must be going on with it.
Renato Absolutely. The goal here and the challenge that we give to our listeners is if you are passionate about meeting people, networking, organize your own unconference wherever you are and if you are not the kind of organizer, community organizer person…
Michael And you just want to show up, participate, be there, and you’ve got people that are resources to do both.
Renato And as we heard from our guests, everybody is available to help so we’ll put information on how to contact them in the notes of this podcast.
Michael Yes, so check out our website: for the links and other content that we’ve mentioned during the show. This podcast was produced by Burns360, even though he hates it when we say that. You can subscribe to the Globally Speaking podcast on iTunes or wherever you get podcasts on the inter-webs.
Renato See you next time.
Michael Alright, sounds good.

End of conversation

Mirko Plitt

Mirko Plitt is a senior language technology manager with exceptional track record in delivering innovation in large software companies, tech startups, language service providers, and in humanitarian aid and crisis response.

Oleksandr Pysaryuk

Oleksandr Pysaryuk is the Localization Manager at Achievers, provider of the cloud-based Employee Success Platform. At Achievers, he is in charge of all things related to localization. Oleksandr has 13 years of experience in software localization on both buyer and service provider sides. Before joining Achievers, he was a Localization Analyst at BlackBerry and also held localization management roles in several other companies, including LanguageScientific and Logrus. Oleksandr holds an MA in Linguistics and Translation Studies and taught translation at a university in Ukraine.

Teresa Marshall

As vice president, globalization and localization, Teresa Marshall drives globalization and localization-related efforts across Salesforce, including internationalization, localization management and development of features designed to enable global Salesforce deployment. In 2009 she joined Salesforce as senior localization manager and led all product localization through a period of intensive growth. Since 2015 Teresa has led both globalization and localization for Salesforce. Teresa started her career as a German linguist and has been working in localization for over 15 years. She has held program and operational management positions at a number of Silicon Valley companies, including leading the Google localization team. From 2010 to 2014 Teresa was an adjunct member of the faculty at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) and taught in the translation and localization management program of the Graduate School of Translation, Interpretation and Language Education. From 2014 to 2016 she was on the board of Women in Localization. Before joining Salesforce in 2009, Teresa managed localization efforts at both Google and PGP in Silicon Valley while teaching at MIIS. An active member of the localization community, she has been the organizer and cohost of the annual Localization Unconference in Silicon Valley since 2009.


Stay Tuned

Subscribe to receive notifications about new episodes

Play episode