What If Internationalization Expectations Exceed Your Budget? – Significantly

Note: This article is featured in the June 2010 issue
of MultiLingual Computing Magazine, in Adam Asnes’ Business Side column.

If you’re considering internationalizing a large and complex software product, there’s one thing you should be prepared for: it’s expensive. There’s just no way around it if you want an application that properly presents, inputs, transforms and reports complex data. I’m talking about applications measured in the hundreds of thousands to millions of lines of code. Seriously, you’re just not going to internationalize a sizeable application that you’ve taken years to develop with money just laying around – unless you have a lot of money laying around, which is pretty rare these days. But before we consider what to do about it, let’s consider the main reasons why you may need to internationalize:

Survival –

Your customers are increasingly global, and perhaps they use your product to reach their customers. If you’re not internationalized, you’re limiting their business. The competition and your customers will know this and will eventually eat your company alive. You’d better start finding some money.

A Sale –

There is nothing like an important customer to get an initiative moving. If this sale funds the internationalization effort, it makes things easier, though there will be commitment that will extend beyond any one customer. I’ve written before how changing your encoding will change your company. But if this sale doesn’t pay for the effort, corporate initiative will be needed.

Your company is global –

Perhaps your company is a global brand and you’ve quickly developed or acquired a product that isn’t internationalized. In this case, the decision to internationalize is usually simple. You do it because you already have a global reputation, sales and distribution. If you have to justify ROI, somebody is missing the point, there’s a temporary issue or the product isn’t showing promise.

Strategic Initiative –

This article isn’t going to be about all the strategic benefits of growing global revenues with products that leverage themselves worldwide, because you know all about that, right? But acting on strategy takes foresight, money, expertise and perseverance.

If you have any of the above situations except budget, this article is especially for you.

I’ll repeat a situation I’ve seen many times. My firm, Lingoport, will be called upon for initial consulting as a company is considering internationalization in reaction to a declared strategic objective to gain business outside a home market. They usually have one or two customers asking for just that, but perhaps there isn’t enough initial interest to finance the necessary development and localization. We go back and perform static analysis on the code using our Globalyzer software, counting the embedded strings, locale-limiting methods/functions/classes and programming patterns that will need attention and refactoring, combined with architectural changes to support locale and changes in processing.

Even with automating tasks for batch efforts like string externalization (after analysis), you still have design, engineering and testing cycles that add up to significant expense. At this point we find out just how strong corporate global resolve sits. And in some cases that resolve is just not quite ready. It’s not a lost cause by any means. In fact, almost always, it’s just a matter of time and resources and most come around in future quarters or fiscal years. But there lies the gap for development managers.

Rarely do developers internationalize software just because it would be cool. You do see that kind of initiative for new features, where a developer might get an idea, work on it during odd or even personal time, and voila, present it to his or her company peers. I have yet to see that happen regarding internationalization (write me if you see otherwise). Still, developers and management often know the need to internationalize is there; ready to become a firm requirement any quarter now. They can go on continuing to develop new features and update current code and not go near internationalization, but actually increasing the scope of the internationalization effort as they grow the code base. Or they can take some simple steps to get ready. To use an expression, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Here’s a brief list of what you can do:

  • Gather requirements – new locale requirements will go much further than what languages will need to be supported. An architect can be tasked with learning about issues like character encoding and locale frameworks. A product marketing person can learn a bit about use cases and business logic that may alter how the product behaves in new countries. It is all too easy to underestimate the requirements phase. Locale behavior will involve quite a bit more than just string externalization. Start tallying and recording what is found in a centrally available resource, like the company wiki for all to build upon and learn about.
  • Prototype a string retrieval method. Learn about resource files and string ID’s and how to make them work. Again, list your results in the company wiki.
  • Do a little reading about Unicode and its various encodings, along with appropriate technologies for their use. It’s not enough to commit to using Unicode. You have to gain some understanding of just what that means.
  • Consider your database schema and how that might change for locale support along with likely changes to character encoding.
  • Consider any third party components or open source you use within your application. Start inquiring about their internationalization support.
  • Consider internationalizing a pilot effort or component of your software if your product architecture will permit it. There’s nothing like learning by doing. And if you decide to take a somewhat different approach later, it probably won’t be too difficult to alter what you’ve already done.
  • Refine your planning – as you learn more, your planning efforts are likely to get clearer. As plans get clearer, they seem less risky and large. You’ll be in a better position to defend expected costs, resources and schedules.
  • Consider application logic. Does your software manage a process that is performed differently around the world?
  • Talk with experts – It’s not prudent to try and reinvent the internationalization process. An experience expert, who’s really been through multiple implementations rather than just advising, can get you prepared faster and cheaper than the time it will take using your internal developers. I’ve seen companies create their own proprietary approaches that ultimately get in the way of a successful implementation. Initial consultation shouldn’t be a budget buster. Even so there are free internationalization webinars (we give them and others do too) and excellent conferences available (i.e. Worldware and the Unicode Conferences).
  • Start measuring toward your expected outcome – If you establish internationalization development practices and measure benchmarks, you are likely to see improvements to new development without significant cost in time and money. Static analysis tools like Globalyzer create a systematic approach, but if there’s no budget, then a simple and clear inclusion of practices and expectations can go a long way.

If you do at least some of this prior to any funded but highly likely internationalization requirement, you’ll be a tremendous asset to your firm’s globalization efforts. And globalization might just be one of the more significant and company-making undertakings that your firm can embark upon.

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