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On the Hot Seat

Translation firm tests new collaboration model

Rory Cowan, chief executive, Lionbridge Technologies

MICHELE MCDONALD FOR THE GLOBE

Rory Cowan, chief executive, Lionbridge Technologies

Lionbridge Technologies in Waltham got into the crowdsourcing game early, transforming its global network of translators into a worldwide workforce of 100,000 contractors who translate websites, test search engines, update tax tables, and complete other country-specific tasks for 800 clients including Microsoft, Porsche, and Pfizer. The majority of workers are part time, from an accountant taking time off to raise children in western Massachusetts to a mobile device tester in Japan.

Reporter Katie Johnston talked to chief executive Rory Cowan, a Gloucester native, about what he calls a “new model of work” and how it helped turn his business into a $475 million-a-year venture.

How did Lionbridge start?

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We started with basic, everyday old translation: very simple and straightforward. That’s how we began to connect with all these employees around the world because there aren’t very many language skills in the US. You need translators to be in country because language is always evolving and changing.

There wasn’t much in the way of cloud computing when you opened your doors in 1996. How have advances in technology changed the way you do business?

We used to have employees in every country around the world or we would have to send people out. There are eight languages in Nigeria. We would have to fly someone down to Lagos, recruit people, test them, make certain they knew the language pairs. With the advent of the Internet, we’re able to do that remotely.

Lionbridge uses the concept of crowdsourcing to perform tasks around the world. Explain how the work gets done.

Let’s say that you are a local company and you have a website and you want it to be available in 15 languages. What we do is take the English language piece, put it into our cloud-based technology. Workers around the world log on to this website, do the translation, and then we put that content back into our customers’ website. Rather than doing it country by country, we had everybody linked in one application, working together.

How big are the jobs?

They might be two- or three- year contracts that might be $10 million a year. We have a gaming customer [and] they have to have a website maintained in 20 languages. And that would be things like video, chat capabilities, forums, news releases. All that stuff is constantly changing and it has to be done in 20 to 30 languages simultaneously.

Is it odd to be in charge of a workforce you never see?

It’s a firm handshake with these employees. They’re choosing to work for us and we’re choosing to hire them. It is a mutual relationship, rather than I’m an employer, you’re an employee and here are our policies. This is a much more flexible model.

How much have you grown as more companies globalize?

If you’re in any business and you’re of scale in that industry, probably half of your sales are outside the US. Traditionally, your French subsidiary would do all the work in France, the Germans all the work in Germany. Now, with this cloud model, we’re able to do all of that at the same time, so we shorten release cycles for our customers quite dramatically. In this world of globalization, you essentially have to release a product worldwide at the same time.

Some of the work Lionbridge contractors do used to be done by in-house employees. Do you have any qualms that you are enabling more jobs to be outsourced?

That’s just the normal evolution of technology. We’re finding that this gives people much more choice on how and when they want to work.

We see that [translators] want to work 5 to 25 hours a week. So, are we taking people’s jobs? Not really. We’re taking that same amount of work and spreading it out over more people.

Right, you’re also bringing jobs to people who don’t have many employment opportunities.

We’re allowing rural workers in India to have a global job, which they’ve never been able to do before.

But I worry about this model. It’s a lot of isolation and not a lot of workplace camaraderie.

Think about the impact of Facebook and Skype. Technology has changed so quickly, people have such different values. I’m not worried about the kids turning 16 and 17 this year. This is the new generation. They have grown up with social media. They don’t have a sense of isolation the way we do.

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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