Research Magazine 2006

Alumni Profile: Robin Lombard

Work of Microsoft terminology manager is synonymous with excellence

Pundits in the literature world encourage an artful use of synonyms. But try using different words with similar meanings in the high-tech world of computer and software technology, and potential for mass confusion looms large.

“Shall we call it a toggle or a switch?” Robin Lombard asks. “Shall we label a color palette hue as being brick red or true red?”

Robin Lombard

“If terms are not documented or used consistently in the product, then the product becomes harder to use in every language.”

- Robin Lombard

Those are the kind of questions, both true examples, with which the UT Arlington alumna labors daily as the terminology research manager for software giant Microsoft.

Dr. Lombard, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in linguistics at UT Arlington, works at the company’s Redmond, Wash., offices in an ongoing effort to document and standardize information technology terminology. She’s recognized as a global expert in the field.

“Any translator who has ever done any translation work for a software company may be familiar with that frustrating feeling of trying to translate a term that she or he does not fully understand,” Lombard says. “What’s more, the translator thinks she or he has seen another term that may be a synonym, but the software company can’t provide any definitive information about this term, either.”

Such a predicament, a failure to adequately document what the software industry calls “key terminology,” can confound readers—and perhaps result in lost sales.

Lombard’s goal is simple to define but difficult to achieve: She wants a uniformity of software terminology, one as free of confusing synonyms as possible. She manages a six-member team that focuses on discovering and documenting new product-based terminology and is among the group members involved in two patents filed on features of the internal Microsoft Glossary and Term Management Tool.

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“Synonyms can be the bane of the industry,” she says. “In addition to our own development process, we have people creating software or documentation working in either a vendor position or as contractors, as well as many people translating the software in up to 100 languages. So having some kind of standard repository of terminology is important. You have to document everything you can.”

Why?

“Users of the English products may be confused if a term is used in two different ways, or if two different terms are used to represent the same concept. Those who do translation work on a product (localizers) need to know the meaning of new terms so that they can figure out and assign the appropriate term in their own language. Language plays a critical role in our ability to learn and master a computer program. If terms are not documented or used consistently in the product, then the product becomes harder to use in every language.”

And the process never ends. New terminology, new concepts and new products call for new terms presented in a consistent, dependable way.

“The terminology set for software will only become larger as problems become more ubiquitous and complex,” Lombard predicts.

Though the issue of consistent terminology will always exist in a complex world, Lombard believes that Microsoft’s development of its Language Portal, a Web site that allows anyone to search Microsoft terminology in a hundred languages, is a critical step in the right direction.

The site, http://microsoft.com/language, was developed primarily by her team.

“It won’t be easy to reach a point at which source language terminology management in the software industry is the rule rather than the exception,” Lombard says. “That vision can only be achieved if each company is committed to managing its own source language terminology and working with other companies in the industry toward standardization.”

- O.K. Carter