Kimberly: Welcome and thank you for listening to ROAR: Speed Bumps.
My name is Kimberly Zie.
Sherine: And I’m Sherine Emara.
Nadya: And I’m Nadya Rodionova.
Kimberly: We are Translation and Localization Management graduate students at MIIS. And we are also French, Arabic and Russian Language Specialist Data Interns at SoundHound. SoundHound is a company working on speech recognition and based in Santa Clara, in California. If you’re not familiar yet with Speedbumps, we’re a student led podcast designed to address challenges that exist in the localization industry. We speak with industry students, professionals, and educators to learn more about challenges that they are facing in the industry and discuss possible solutions. In this podcast, we will be interviewing MIIS alumna, Alicia Dominick, who’s now a Linguist and Project Manager at SoundHound! Hi Alicia!
Alicia: Hi! How are you guys doing?
Nadya: Hi! Hi Alicia! Thank you for being here with us today. First of all, can you tell our listeners your story and how you found yourself in the language industry.
Alicia: Yeah, definitely. So, I’m a MIIS alumna. I grew up originally in Arizona, I lived there all my life, went to high school there, went to Arizona State University and I studied linguistics for English and linguistics for Spanish. And in my last year of college I kind of realized what translation is. I found out about it, and there is a program at my school for English and Spanish translation so I enrolled in it, just to try it out. It was a certificate program and at the same time I was doing an Honors thesis in translation. And that’s kind of the year that I decided that that’s kind of the field that I want to get into. So I got to MIIS that year and I moved to Monterey, and I did the T&I program for Spanish originally, but then, starting with the second year of my program I kind of wanted to focus my shift more just on translation. So I did Spanish translation for my Master’s, but I also got a secondary certificate in community translation in case that’s the road that I wanted to take later. I thought that would kind of be a good combination of my skills focusing more on translation but also having the background of interpretation in case I wanted to follow that field instead. And then when I graduated I ended up getting an internship at SoundHound and I’ve been here ever since.
Nadya: Yeah, sounds very familiar to me and it was so nice to meet you at SoundHound – to meet a MIIS alumna there. And how do you think your education in linguistics and Master’s degree from MIIS relate to your current position at SoundHound?
Alicia: I should clarify that since starting at SoundHound, I kind of shifted from one role to the next. And so when I started my career at SoundHound, I was a Language Data Specialist working directly with my two languages English and Spanish. This is a role where you’re a linguist, you’re working directly with the language that you are working on. So you’re basically a representative of your language pair trying to localize a product and a process into a different language. But, nowadays, my role has shifted significantly and my company and team has grown, I’ve also kind of grown and shifted responsibilities and focuses. So now my role is more like a general linguist and also project manager. So I help out with more language teams than just the one I was originally working with and I also help various projects with project management. I also help onboard new team members and I’m generally a mentor for new people.
Nadya: Interesting, so would you say that it’s a common path for people with a linguistic background to start in a Language Specialist role and then move on to the next step within the company?
Alicia: Yeah, I’d say it might happen. It kind of depends on the circumstances, but I was listening to this ROAR podcast and something that Max Troyer said in his interview – and he said that when you enter the localization industry you really have to enjoy it and start working on language because you know as time goes by sometimes people do happen growing within their company and within their team so it’s easy to kind of stray from the path of working totally on linguistics all the time, and that’s what happened to me as well. So I do think that it’s sometimes a common path, sometimes it’s not common at all; sometimes people really thrive working on language all the time and they don’t really shift roles after that.
Nadya: Yeah, I see. And is the project management position at SoundHound your first project management role?
Alicia: Yeah. I would say, professionally this is definitely my first project management role. But, on a personal level, I’ve done a lot of things that happened to deal with leadership and being a manager of whatever project I’m working on – whether it’s something at school or if I’m on a team playing sports with people, I naturally have kind of grown into a management role where I kind of help run the team and run activities and I think that’s really important to have. So even though I’ve never gone through a professional program management program, I’ve done a lot of things in my personal life where I’ve learned leadership skills and I’ve got to apply them here. So an example is that every summer I volunteer with a group of high school students, teaching them leadership skills. And I’ve done it for ten years now, so even though that has nothing to do with professional project management, we’re still teaching these kids the same leadership skills that I’ve really been using as a project manager on my team.
Nadya: Yeah, good to know that some informal experience can actually help you in your professional career. So given that your title combines now two roles, what do you like most about the Linguist role and what do you like most about the Project manager role?
Alicia: I really like that you can have a combination of two different roles and kind of focus your shift from one day to the next. So I really like to be helpful wherever I’m working. And I like being able to jump in and work on language stuff one day and then the next day I’m able to kind of coordinate something – coordinate projects, make sure tasks get done for whatever I’m working on. So I like actually being able to work with data and language and do the language work, but also kind of step out of that role and help, be a mentor, or, you know, manage a project. I like being able to kind of be versatile. So if you think of sports, because I play softball, I like to be kind of the utility player where you’re not assigned to one role all the time, you can kind of fill in the gaps where needed.
Nadya: Yeah, that’s a good tip for recent graduates to be proactive and try to take more responsibilities. That will always help you to promote your career further. And it seems like you’re very busy at your current role and I suppose you may have faced some speedbumps in your career path as a Linguist and Project Manager.
Sherine: Yeah. And in this podcast we’re actually very interested in the speed bumps that localization professionals or people working in the localization industry are facing. And since this is our topic, what speed bumps or challenges have you seen as a linguist working at a tech company?
Alicia: The first speed bump I could talk about is that I think a lot of people who come into this technology industry have a lot of really good skills, but they might lack skills in some sort of area.
And for me, that has been technological skills. So, I came into this field in general with really strong background in linguistics and phonetics and phonology and translation, but I really have never coded anything before. I never got a chance to take a coding class, and even when I was at MIIS, my program was focused on T&I. I wasn’t in the TLM program because I didn’t really know what it was.
And so I never got the chance to even take a basic Python class or anything that would really just be a basic intro to how computers work. And so I in the same interview with Max Troyer about his experience in the field, I heard him say that he came in with the opposite experience where he had a complete computer science background and then learned localization later and how language really works.
And he said that you should kind of have a mix of the two. You can’t be a computer scientist with no knowledge of language and then start working on speech recognition. Right. But you also need to have some background of technological skills before you come in with just a linguistics background. And so that’s the speed bump that I’m dealing with, is learning how to kind of get my skills up to speed and the things that I lack that I didn’t get to learn at school.
Sherine: Yeah. I think we, the three of us, actually share the same experience. We came with a more of a linguistic background to SoundHound, and we had to learn some technical skills on the job, and we also learned some basic coding at school. And it seems like this is where the industry is actually going right now, and that these kinds of skills are in much of need. So this is something that recent graduates and people who are aiming for this industry should actually put into consideration. So let’s move on to your project management role.
So are there any speed bumps that you came across in this role?
Alicia: Yeah. I think it’s a very similar thing for project management where you do need a wide set of skills, and it’s helpful to be versatile and have a bunch of different well-rounded skills to be able to do your role right. So for example, you can’t just be a project manager and have no idea how technology works or how language works. You have to kind of learn the different processes of whatever company you’re working at, so that you don’t just assign due dates without understanding, you know, what’s involved before you just assign a task because if you don’t understand what the job is, then it’s going to be really hard for you to relate to the people working on the job.
Sherine: Yeah. And that’s something that we’ve also experienced, like on the job and at school, working in different time zones and different teams. So we know that you worked before in languages that you don’t speak. And that’s something that we also learned and came across more often at school. So how was your experience working on languages that you did not speak or even can read?
Alicia: Yeah. So this is something that I feel like localization project managers might come across, especially if you’re on a team with a lot of different languages, you’re not always going to be working with just the language that you speak.
And I think there’s a lot of skills that you can learn to be able to make this happen. So in my experience, I was kind of the mentor helping new hires, and sometimes they didn’t speak the same language as me, or we spoke English together, but we were working on different things. So I had to come up with ways to kind of cope with not knowing the same language that they did, so that I could relate to them better.
And one of those ways is just, you know, going to the internet and researching what is this language like. So that, you know, when I’m trying to mentor someone new, I put myself in their shoes and I can kind of relate to them based on my experiences and the languages I speak. If they happen to be similar languages, I can kind of give my perspective from a Spanish speaking or English speaking perspective.
And if not, then sometimes you go online and you kind of just read a basic summary on Wikipedia of what this language is like, so that you can kind of get a sense of what they know and what their language is going to be like.
Kimberly: It’s very interesting and that’s something that we are actually learning a lot at school. How to work with languages that you don’t speak. So, I have another question for you. Since voice technology is a relatively new industry. And since there’s a lack of education programs that specifically focus on the skills that you need to launch a career in the industry as a linguist or a project manager, do you think that the degree in a language related field or project management is enough or do you think that the industry is in need of some kind of a new program to prepare young professionals for the real world?
Alicia: That’s a hard question to answer of if whether it would be enough, because I think it really depends on each person and the skills that they have, but I think that in general, it would be great if you can combine a bunch of different disciplines and have one like a monster program. So in voice technology or AI in general, I think because people are really lacking the technological skills, it would be great if you could combine the field of like linguistics with computational linguistics, with localization with translation. So all those things where you’re learning project management, learning how to code, learning linguistics and by linguistics here I mean the actual field of linguistics. So when you’re looking at phonetics and phonology and semantics and how language works as a science, and then computational linguistics actually focuses on artificial intelligence. So if you could kind of combine all of those things, I feel like someone would come out really well rounded.
And because there’s not a monster degree like that right now, I think the best thing a linguist could do would be just take online courses on the side or just try working on something that’s challenging, like for me, I have a hard time working on online videos to advance my skills. I work much better when I’m actually given a task and it challenges me to work through it.
So even though I’m not taking a lot of those online classes, I’ve tried, but the best thing for me is to be given a challenge and work my way through it, and that’s how I can learn.
Kimberly: And what’s the most valuable course that you’ve taken at MIIS that gave you the practical knowledge and the skills that you’re using now in your role?
Alicia: Honestly, I can’t pick one class because I feel like all the classes at MIIS the I took were really useful. I took two CAT classes that were really memorable to me, and this kind of gave me a feel of what the industry is like to begin with. So I took CAT tool basics and I took Advanced CAT and in one of those classes we actually made something using Microsoft Translator Hub.
And I will always remember that project because I really learned what machine translation and AI is all about. Like how you do it, how you train it and then what the results are and how you would iterate on it. So that was a really good overview for me of how AI works and how machine learning works, so that I have like at least a baseline of how this field works.
But even classes where you wouldn’t think are super applicable have really helped me. So for example, I’ve done a lot of interpreting classes. I’ve done a lot of translation classes, and I think having topics of translation interpretation that are really random come into play really well. So they’ve really helped me switch from one topic to another, or I guess that’s called context switching.
I think being able to context switch between different tasks and different projects really randomly is a good skill to have because sometimes regardless of where you work, one day you’ll be working on this thing and then the next day you’re working on something else. And that’s something where I saw in the translation industry one day you’re translating something about fish and the next day you’re translating something about, I dunno, mining and then the next day you’re interpreting and the topic is like education. So being able to context switch is very helpful. I think that’s a skill that will really help you.
Kimberly: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I think something that MIIS is also very good at is to teach you how to learn new things, pick up new skills very quickly. And, and I think we can all relate to what you just said.
Thank you so much, Alicia, for your time. Thank you for sharing great insights with us.
Alicia: Yeah, of course.
Sherine: Yeah. Thank you, Alicia, for joining us today and for sharing great insights about your experience and challenges that you faced in the industry, and that’s all the time we had for today.
Thank you for listening to our podcast of Speed Bumps. Have a great day, and watch out for speed bumps.