A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of talking to Millie Tran on her role as Director of Global Adaptation at BuzzFeed. She first caught my attention when she joined the Ways We Work Slack group and introduced herself - I immediately wanted to know more about the role of global adaptation at BuzzFeed and what that involved. In the interview, Millie shares what the role is, what her and her team work on and how she ended up in such a role after a long career in various editorial positions. She gives a lot of good insight into being successful in operational roles and leveraging your skills to move up and sometimes over within an organization.
Tell me a little about your role and what that involves on a day to day.
My title is Director of Global Adaptation at BuzzFeed. What that actually means is that my job is to make the best of BuzzFeed available to anyone, anywhere, in whatever language, platform or format. What that means in practice is that if a story is doing well in the U.S. in English, exploring if we should translate that into French or into German, and vice versa. Or, say if a video or comic is doing well in France, should it be a post in the U.S?
It’s more strategic than just translating though. The idea behind my role and the team I’m building is to build out an “adaptation layer” on top of BuzzFeed. If we have one layer where all of our content lives, and another where we’re distributing that content, I think of the adaptation layer as above both of those — where we’re looking at what’s being published, where it’s being published, how well it’s doing and how we can maximize what we’re doing with different audiences.
How big is that team?
I’ve been at BuzzFeed for a while but I started in this adaptation role in November. Since then, the team has grown to 8 people. There are four of us based in New York, two people in LA, one person in Tokyo and another person in Paris. We’re also hiring two more people in Brazil and Germany.
We mostly run out of headquarters in New York and our team in LA focuses on video translations and adapts the best of our video content. Mamiko and Adélie, who are on my team in Tokyo and Paris, respectively, are working with our BuzzFeed Japan and BuzzFeed France teams and focusing on bringing the best of BuzzFeed’s content from around the world to our Japanese and French audience. That will be the same across all our other markets. What’s fun is that we haven’t totally cracked the code on all of these yet, so we’re going through this really fun period of experimentation, building off lessons from our strong local editors and learning more deeply about who our audiences are and what resonates with them.
“The BuzzFeed News app gave me the opportunity to answer those questions, not by doing research or surveys but by making a product and working with actual readers and a real audience. It was a no-brainer.”
How did you end up at Buzzfeed? I saw you started in another role there first, so what was your path to your current role?
I’ve always been in media, and have always loved media, so my past roles have been mostly in journalism and editorial. In undergrad, I worked on my school paper as a tech columnist and opinion editor. Since I was so steeped in the editorial and news side, I did internships on the business side while I was still in school because I was so curious about media overall and didn’t know anything about it.
I worked at GOOD doing business partnerships, which led me to apply for this fellowship with Atlantic Media Company right after college. I got the fellowship, moved to D.C. from Los Angeles and worked on their political magazine National Journal where I was doing marketing and design. The fellowship was supposed to be a year long until I saw an internal job listing for a marketing associate. Because I was 21-years-old and had huge balls — for lack of a better word — I walked into my boss’ office and said, “I can do this job, you should hire me.” I ended up getting hired and was able to use my design background and to help launch the National Journal membership program. After working on the marketing and sales side for a while, I wanted to get back to the editorial side. I’d always had an interest in international affairs and foreign policy so I joined the multimedia team at the Council on Foreign Relations. They had won several Emmys for their multimedia projects, so I was eager to work with them. I was working with really talented video and multimedia producers and I helped produce a podcast called The World Next Week. I'm kind of upset that I missed the second ~cool~ wave of podcasts. [laughs]
After that, I moved to the American Press Institute because a friend who was in the same media circles in D.C. told me that a friend of his was relaunching this journalism think tank. I had this weird mix of media experience and was already working at a think tank so it kind of fit. There were four of us for the first six months or so and we were able to relaunch this old journalism institute as a think tank that was innovative and a leader in figuring out how the world of media and journalism was changing. While there, I was able to work on so many things like the design and branding because we were just launching this thing and we had to develop an identity; and the editorial strategy because I had an editorial background; as well as the marketing aspect and how we would position ourselves. It was just a really cool way to flex all those muscles that I’d developed in a really holistic way. There I helped launched this product called Need to Know, which is a newsletter for people in media who don’t have time to keep up with all the changes in media.
Through that, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, who was a subscriber and at the Financial Times at the time, sent me an email saying, “Hey, I’m starting this new team at BuzzFeed with a big email component, join me.” I was still at API at this point and thought I was going to grad school to study the internet and media, get an MBA and save the journalism industry. [laughs] BuzzFeed and Stacy offered me this chance to answer a lot of the questions I was interested in and already studying at API. Questions like, how do people get their news? What are they reading? When and how often? More importantly, joining the BuzzFeed News app team gave me the opportunity to answer those questions, not just by doing research or surveys but by making a product and working with actual readers and a real audience. It was a no-brainer.
From there, Stacy has been such a big advocate and supporter of mine that when there was an internal opening for this role, she had suggested I do it. It was one of those things where you realize why it's critical to have mentors and advocates who know your work (perhaps better than you do) and know you, because she had to sell me on this before I even thought this was a good fit for myself.
It was this really great marriage of all my interests: building something from scratch (or, in other words, turning a nebulous vision thing into an actual thing), the obsessive focus on audiences and editorial products, and of course, the international element.. At it’s core, the adaptation job is all about how information moves and I understood that from working on the app and the email newsletter; the ability to translate ideas, not just words — and being an immigrant helped too (I was born in Vietnam). So it was just all of these things that you don't put together and it doesn't make sense until someone else connects those dots for you. And that's how I'm here.
“For me, it’s always been about asking myself what I set out to learn. Have I learned that, what else can I learn and how much impact can I make? I think sometimes people think they’re just stuck in one place at a company, but it’s important to look at how you can leverage your skills to maximize where you’re at.”
You've been in media and editorial for most of your career and had many different roles. How do you know when it's time for you to make a personal change?
For me, it’s always been about asking myself what I set out to learn. Have I learned that and what other experiences or skills can I add? I think sometimes people think they’re just stuck in one place at a company, but it’s important to look at how you can leverage your skills to maximize where you’re at. I learned so much launching the news app and the newsletter — but I wasn’t done learning. It was about figuring out how I could apply what I’ve learned, my experience and my skills in a new way.
On a personal level, it's always been about where I can make the most impact, and where I can learn the most, and grow the most. I actually get very uncomfortable when things are too easy. It's really about exploring all the avenues to make sure that you’re actually maxed out. I feel like if you're good, and your company is good, and there are other problems to be solved, they'll make it work for you.
What are some of the main parts of your role that you think people would be surprised at?
I think the part that's most surprising is that I genuinely work across multiple parts of the company. I think this job would be so hard if I tried to operate as an island. I've been in jobs, and I've enjoyed jobs where I can just hunker down and focus on one thing, but what we are trying to do involves so many different people at the company. It involves working with our international editors, understanding their audiences, and what content works. It's working with our data science team to identify that on a more quantitative level. It's working with our product and dev teams to build products and tools to help us in this process. Sometimes you want to translate a video, so you're working with producers and our post production team. It's truly an “it takes a village” job.
What do you find the most challenging about what you do?
One thing is getting people who don't report to you to do things for you. It's fun in a way because any time you start a new thing, especially internally, it's a lot of selling your ideas to your peers about why this is beneficial for them, why they should help you, and what they’ll get out of it — and the art of persuasion is not easy to master. I think that's just a really good lesson to learn because you can take that anywhere with you. It's not just having the skill set to get shit done yourself — which we are all highly competent and can do — but it's really about leveraging everyone else's experience, and time, and skills to help you do your job and convincing them it's also good for them.
“It’s about making what I do more visible because I feel like any role that is operational can seem invisible. Which makes it hard for people to help you because they don't know how to help you or what your goals are.”
Are there any particular routines or processes that you've developed that help you be the most productive throughout the week?
A lot of my job is making sure everyone knows what our team is doing and what we’re up to. I'm naturally a very collaborative person so that makes all of this a lot easier. But it's making sure I am keeping the right people in the loop, sharing information with the right people, and even sharing information with maybe not the right people but passively in a way that’s you don't have to read this but if you're interested here it is.
It’s about making what I do more visible because I feel like any role that is operational can seem invisible. Which makes it hard for people to help you because they don't know how to help you or know what your goals are. It's constantly thinking about how I can continually share knowledge across so many different teams and languages effectively. It’s also about thinking how what I'm saying is most useful for our PR team versus our engineering team, our data team, or our news team or editorial team.
What are the main tools that you use in your current workflow?
Gmail & Google Calendar - C’mon, are you surprised? I can't live without these two. My calendar rules me.
Outlook on iOS - The Outlook iOS app is so good. After they bought the Acompli app, and then Sunrise. It's just the best email app, and everyone thinks you’re crazy, but once you use it, it's just a superior experience. It also combines your calendar, which feels intuitive (even if I still use Google Calendar on iOS).
Slack - Obviously. Slack has been a great way to do what I said earlier, which is to keep people passively in the loop. For example, when I don’t want to burden someone with an email (and create an unintentional habit of ignoring emails from me because they’re irrelevant!), I’ll forward it to Slack to make the information available if they’re even just a little bit interested. I’m all about the cross pollination of ideas and creating more opportunities for that to happen.
Twitter & Nuzzel - I still have to know what's going on in the world (which isn’t officially part of my job anymore) while doing my actual job. I have to know what my colleagues are talking about, what they're sharing. Nuzzel helps me with a snapshot of what’s being shared on Twitter without actually having to be on Twitter all day.
Evernote & Google Drive - I am such a big proponent of narrowing your collection point. I write everything in Evernote because it's so much easier to find something in one place. Google Drive is the static, reference library of Slack and email. I’m obsessed with excellent documentation. Google Docs and Sheets are especially important for me I'm so curious to know how many newsrooms are being powered by Google Docs.
Headspace & Spotify - Two things that are meditative for me. Just to calm my mind and just listen to some good jams.
Do you ever have times where you feel disconnected from your work, and how do you bring yourself back to that head space?
When I was working in news I was constantly worried that I was burning out — which is almost worse than actually burning out! You just live in this constant state of anxiety. I used to wake up around 4 a.m. to do the newsletter and everyday I'd wake up startled and think what happened in the world? and hoped that nothing bad happened while I was asleep. I think that anyone in news will tell you that burnout is a real fear, especially if you're doing digital news. The pace at which news moves now, it's insane. It's hard to keep up. It's a slippery slope to burnout.
Something else that's been hard — because I love news and being on the editorial side so much and creating things — and that is less of my job now, is having to continually remind yourself of how what you're doing connects to a bigger picture. I would say the bulk of my job is operations and management, even if it’s built on an editorial foundation. So, it's constantly reminding yourself how what you’re doing feeds into that larger goal of what you truly are passionate about. At the end of the day, it's about reminding yourself of the larger reason why you're doing this. That’s helped me a lot with both burnout and boredom.
“It's constantly reminding yourself how what you’re doing goes into that larger goal of what you truly are passionate about. I think at the end of the day it's about reminding yourself of the larger reason why you're doing this.”
What is it about working in editorial, and media in general that you find so meaningful, and why do you love it?
I love knowing what's going on in the world, and our place in the world and how to be a citizen of the world and a person on this planet. I want to keep zooming out, but on a very personal level if that makes any sense. It's just that desire for knowledge — desire to know and understand the context of the world in which you live. The second half of that is being able to talk with people about all of those things, and make those connections.
At the end of the day, it's always about the people. I think the closer I am to helping someone understand something, or helping someone better understand all these things, better understand the world they live in, better understand how they can influence XYZ or change XYZ or make a difference. That's my small dent in the universe.
Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?
Stacy-Marie Ishmael - She's a JSK journalism fellow at Stanford for 2016-17 and she'll be studying what it means to have a minimum viable mobile news room. Oh, and she also built the BuzzFeed News app and totally changed the news app landscape. If you don't know her, she's one of those people who, every experience and every conversation with her is transformational — which sounds like an exaggeration, but I think anyone who has talked with her, met her, interacted with her would say the same.
Nicole Nguyen - She is our tech products reviewer at BuzzFeed and she is probably the best in her game because no one writes tech product reviews like her — she writes them for humans. She has a great sense of talking about specs of something in a way that no one would normally care, and writing about it in a way that makes you think about how that affects how you would actually use the product in your life.
Laura Davis - We launched the BuzzFeed News app together, and she is now the digital news director at the Annenberg Media Center at the University of Southern California, as well as a full-time assistant professor of journalism. If you want to talk to a journalist who really understands the media landscape, talk to Laura. She's obsessed with media and how the media industry is changing. She has such an astute sense of audience and editorial products and how we can make great editorial products for our audiences.