Phrase and beyond

Driven to Build Things: My Path to Director of Product Suite at Phrase

Martin Svestka’s story of becoming Director of Product Suite at Phrase is one that can hardly leave product people unmoved. Find out what it means to help shape the future of a leading localization solution.
People story blog post featured image | Phrase

My name is Martin Svestka, Director of Product Suite at Phrase. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in making and improving things.

I was born in Plumlov, a small town in the Czech Republic, barely 2K people, in 1973. The first toy I remember was a set of garden tools for kids—rake, shovel, hoe—real metal tools; 18 families on our street relied on a small creek to water their backyards, so we built a dam from rocks and soil to retain the water.

I loved when a heavy rain flushed the rocks away, so I could rebuild and improve it. I became the local chief dam architect before I graduated from elementary school. Building something was what echoed throughout my childhood.

Getting no mercy from my 2 older sisters prepared me well for the military high school I graduated from in 1991. Then, 1 more year at a military college, and I knew my career needed less drill and more technology in the mix. Leaving the gates of the military school was one of the most liberating experiences in my life.

Artificial intelligence and robotics—and a move to the US

A scene from the movie Terminator 2, specifically the part set in the Cyberdyne Systems building, where they are going through the T-100 leftovers from part 1, inspired me to study robotics. I spent the next 5 years at the Czech Technical University in Prague. I graduated from the Technical Cybernetics Department in February 1998, the week the Czech hockey team won the Olympics in Nagano.

A year later, my wife and I were on a plane to Austin, Texas—or Silicon Hills, to be more specific—to work for a high-tech company, whose campus reminded me of the legendary Cyberdyne Systems. Mission accomplished. I rotated through various roles in technical support, engineering, and IT. It was a priceless experience, where I got to work with many talented people and made a lot of friends.

A love of outdoor sports

We planned to stay 2 years but stayed almost a decade and expanded to a family of 4—by far the biggest accomplishment of my life. Federer’s trophy at Wimbledon in 2003 motivated me to start playing tennis. That lasted only a few years, but the love to practice sports continued. These days, I am more into MTB in the summer, XC skiing in the winter, and occasionally some triathlons or orienteering. As I’ll discuss later, these interests are often shared by product developers. It’s part of our DNA.

My move into localization technology

The first touchpoint with localization took place about 10 years ago—when I started managing globalization, including translation and localization, for an enterprise website. I was working closely with the marketing localization team, who had been dreaming of a translation management system (TMS) but struggled to make the case with management. Luckily, a few years later, the company kicked off a complete digital transformation, and the localization team managed to squeeze in a budget for the TMS.

Unfortunately for the organization, and fortunately for me, the first implementation didn’t work out well, so some years later, I was asked to take ownership of the TMS. We got the green light to find a new vendor. Just 3 months later, we were on the Memsource Cloud.

I met the Memsource team at LocWorld 2018 in Seattle. Their team was a bunch of friendly people, enthusiastic about reshaping the localization world. That was the pivotal moment when I started thinking about making localization my future career. A year later, I was a proud owner of a Memsource door badge.

A fast route from product manager to director of product suite

My first role at Memsource was as a product manager (PM). I was promoted to chief product officer (CPO) about 6 months later. As of 2022—1 year after Memsource and Phrase joined forces—I’m director of product suite at Phrase.

It sounds quick, but I had spent almost 2 decades in various software product management roles before Memsource and Phrase, so it was a relatively natural transition for me. This included a couple of years as product support manager, then various IT software project and program management roles, as well as an agile product owner. These all formed a solid base for the transition to leading the team.

Putting it all together

The job of a chief product officer involves many things. It’s a long laundry list, but I’ll pick 1 responsibility that IMHO stands out. Our product team has more than 70 years of combined experience in the localization industry. Part of my job is to enable that team to use that experience to make Phrase an awesome product. Why do I think it stands out? Well, let’s be honest: Unless you are a genius, your best chance of success is to surround yourself with a wide talent pool—a tremendous asset that drives innovation on a daily basis.

A love of product development and building better solutions

I love product discovery and finding solutions to tough challenges. Discussing a problem at hand with customers, consulting with my colleagues, drawing charts, tossing them away, and drawing them again until you reach the eureka moment—when the light goes on in the head and everything starts coming together, it’s the grand finale of product discovery; the same feeling climbers have when they reach a summit (I know from personal experience, from the days I used to do rock climbing at college).

The challenge is to take those dozens or even hundreds of ideas, find common patterns, and turn them into the most logical solution that balances the triangle of 1) long-term vision, 2) immediate customer needs, and 3) the engineering & resource constraints. The challenge is to stay focused on the holistic product and not to slide into just managing tons of individual feature ideas.

Developing the required skills for a strategy-heavy role

A director role in product management has a strong emphasis on developing and implementing long-term strategic goals. It may be a long way to get there, but there are some key things that product managers should keep in mind to achieve this goal.

First things first, I find it interesting that most of our PMs practice some kind of endurance sports or have done some sports competitively. It’s an activity that gives you some pain but not always an immediate reward. You pursue it over the long haul and encounter many obstacles. 

Furthermore, it’s an activity where you don’t draw your energy from everyday accomplishments but from inner conviction that you are working on something important. That defines introverts. Product management requires a balance between a creative inner life and working with a team of others.

As a PM, you need to collaborate and maintain relationships with tons of internal and external stakeholders. That’s what extroverts are good at. So, you are looking for a converted introvert, a self-starter, a quick learner with patience, and strong perseverance. And it’s given that they’re talented and have experience in our industry. That’s really hard to find. Even I, as director of product suite, don’t do well in all these areas (some gaps in patience, I’ve been told). 

As you grow from a junior to senior PM, director, or chief product officer, you move from the passenger’s seat to the driver’s seat, and you start asking the “what if” question more often. If you end up asking it before you get up in the morning, you’re in the strategic-mind club.

Leadership and building a product team

One of my responsibilities is building and managing a team that understands exactly what we’re doing and why. The product team doesn’t work in a vacuum, it works closely with other departments, most notably engineering. You have to have an alignment between how engineering and product teams are organized.

However, what drives the organization is how you market the products; how customers think about it and plan to use it. A product like Microsoft Office is a collection of products that together make the most sense to their users (word processor, spreadsheet, etc.), and that’s how the ownership, accountability, and development are organized.

Introducing vertical product teams

It’s exciting to see that we’ve been moving to more vertical product teams since 2021. It promotes autonomy, where the teams have stronger control over their deliverables, and it’s clearer who owns what. In other words, we shy away from hierarchical management, where people are directed, and promote empowered managers and teams.

However, to make sure we don’t end up in silos—with verticals going off on a tangent—we have routines in place to stay aligned: At the beginning of a week, we sync on operational matters; at the end of the week, PMs solution together and may squeeze ad-hoc topical things in between. 

The half-life of your knowledge in information technology is very short (some studies claim 2 years). That’s why you need to constantly invest in staying up to date with the market, competition, new technologies, etc.

The first-mover advantages of starting in the cloud

Memsource was developed as a cloud-based translation management solution from the get-go, following the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. It was a disruptor to the traditional TMS market that was dominated by either standalone on-premise applications or client/server architecture.

Our competition had to spend tremendous effort to rewrite a big part of their solutions for cloud delivery and maintenance. That’s a slow process, during which you need to maintain both codebases. It can get expensive and demotivating since your efforts aren’t producing anything new and exciting but are spent on rewriting the guts. 

Memsource didn’t have that baggage, and it allowed the company to move forward at a rapid pace. The vast majority of our engineering effort has been going towards adding new value to customers.

As Memsource and Phrase are evolving into an integrated suite of technology and joining identities under the name “Phrase,” which has a universal character across cultures and languages, we’re able to cover all aspects of localization across an organization.

Translation technology is key for the globalized world of tomorrow

The total amount of global data has grown to zettabytes, and with it, the amount of content to translate. To make it more challenging, the velocity is increasing too. More than half of translation jobs in Phrase TMS are less than 200 words, and the average job word count is decreasing every year. Faster, smaller, more.

In order for the localization industry to keep up with those trends, the cost of translation keeps going down. It’s fair to say that productivity tools for human translation have reached their limits in terms of throughput, and we can’t expect meaningful improvement in productivity in human translation alone. 

This means we’ll be relying on machines even more; just like in many other industries today. Lines of codes are flying planes, driving cars, controlling nuclear reactors. AI is learning the soft skills humans excel at, including visual object recognition, sentiment analysis, reading, and writing. Last year, machine translation (MT) post-editing in Phrase was more common than human translation.

Still, it’s not just the translation—its management needs to become automated, too. The ideal TMS is invisible, integrated, and automated—only requiring human intervention if something is off. Just like an automatic transmission in cars. The ideal translation workflow is close to real time, low in cost, with the appropriate level of quality for given content. The technology is there, but it’s sometimes the human habits that hold us back. Many people still prefer driving a manual transmission.

Never stop learning, and give your career a boost

For at least a decade, Memsource and Phrase were able to grow and excel in their own areas of expertise. Memsource built an unrivaled, full-fledged translation management system catering to enterprise business needs, while Phrase honed in on software localization, serving development teams with a continuous localization platform that integrated tightly into their workflows.

By integrating our best-in-class technologies in 1 suite, we’re now able to provide enterprises with a comprehensive solution that meets all their localization needs. That’s an incredible success story, and I appreciate that I was invited to help shape it. Want to be part of it as well? 

If you are an experienced product manager but new to the localization industry, sign up for localization tool trials, talk to linguists and translation project managers, read “The General Theory of the Translation Company”, watch the dozens of webinars that are available online from different TMS vendors, and listen to conference session recordings.

If you are a savvy localization expert who wants to crack into product management, then there are tons of resources available for you. I think we all have read Martin Cagan’s “Inspired”, the bible for tech product development. Try Coursera, and if you write up a nice justification letter, you may be able to get a product management course for free. You can even get certified, but honestly, we’d pay little attention to that. Since you are in the software industry, you need to understand how software development works. Learn about agile, continuous delivery—don’t be afraid to get technical.

Finally, feel free to get in touch with us. Phrase keeps growing and hiring. You could be one of us.