Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Interview with Unicode Volunteer -
Addison Phillips

[image Addison Phillips] Throughout the year, we engage in in-depth discussions with Unicode contributors to spotlight their vital contributions and share their stories. These conversations are a key part of our initiative to recognize the often unseen efforts of our volunteers, offering a more personal glimpse into the lives of those who drive our mission forward.

In our latest feature, meet Addison Phillips, a dedicated volunteer who brings a wealth of enthusiasm, expertise, and passion to the Unicode community.

Q: What do you do now and what’s your role with Unicode?

A: I am currently Chair of the Unicode Message Format Working Group. I retired having spent the last 14 years at Amazon as well as a variety of other organizations including Yahoo, Web Methods (part of Software AG), and AT&T/Lucent Technologies. I’m primarily an “internationalization architect”, but I’ve worked in the localization, tools, and consulting space.

Q: How long have you been a volunteer at Unicode? Is there an area of focus currently?

A: A long time. I have volunteered on different levels with Unicode since the early 2000s. I had some less consistent involvement in the late 1990s.

Most recently, I’ve been the Chair of the Message Format Working Group, which is part of the CLDR project. We just released our Technical Preview a couple of months ago, as part of LDML45.

A lot of locale data is focused on individual APIs–how do you format a number? How do you format a time? How do you call “January” or “Tuesday” or “Morocco” in a given language? But Message Format, to me, is a much better starting point for the people building the software–and the people localizing it. It’s a format that lets developers make easy-to-translate, grammatical messages and saves all these people from having to learn all the low-level formatting minutiae. Building an open, shared, consistent standard for formatting will unlock so much.

Q: How did you first become involved with Unicode?

A: Initially, I attended Unicode conferences, as I was working in localization and the i18n consulting space. I was lobbying for Unicode support, for example from browser makers such as Netscape. I started presenting at Unicode conferences, including the Introduction to Internationalization tutorial. In the early 2000s, I joined the conference review committee and the editorial committee and also engaged my employers to become members of Unicode. In March 2003, I attended the Unicode conference in Prague, where Mark Davis (Unicode’s cofounder) and I cooked up a plan to address issues with locale identifiers–then a hot topic–which resulted in BCP47. That work is a cornerstone of the locale data work that, today, is CLDR. On-going, I had steady but what I would consider “lower tier involvement” with Unicode including lots of communication about needed fixes.

Q: What do you enjoy about contributing to Unicode?

A: The camaraderie. These are the people who “speak my language”: they share the same concerns, and face the same problems. Unicode as an organization has been really effective at delivering impactful things, both as a consumer and promoter of these technologies. It’s been a powerful way to effect change. Really early in my career, I was working on an overseas mainframe project at AT&T. It was scary: I needed to find a system-specific encoding map. There was one guy who was rumored to have the mapping. I had to call the Adobe switchboard and hope they would connect me to this “Ken Lunde” person (luckily he took the call!). It was a tricky world to live in, with every company having its own operating system and each operating system having its own set of character encodings per language. Everything was bespoke. Because of Unicode, this issue no longer exists. Unicode changed how computing works and how it’s thought of; having CLDR data and ICU as an implementation of that, it has made life so much easier.

Q: Do you have a favorite Unicode project you’ve worked on? Why?

A: I have really liked a lot of the projects. I am most excited by the growth of the community engagement area. Education and awareness is the biggest problem we have in the internationalization space. The encoding of text and the support of different languages and cultures is now widely available, but nobody is aware of it. No one learns it in computer science courses. Engineers are busy and they generate this kind of “disinformation bubble” of quick hacks that localization teams in particular have to overcome.

In my roles with previous employers and in my consulting–and the reason I did the tutorials at Unicode conferences–was, before we can actually move forward, everyone needs to be on common ground, with common understanding and a common vocabulary. I couldn’t be happier than to see Unicode reaching the community with information and providing standard information so everyone, no matter what environment they come from, can learn this stuff–the right way.

Q: What contribution(s) to the Unicode community are you most proud of?

A: The locale identifier work (BCP47) was pretty impactful. The personal things and making people aware that Unicode is there and a reliable source of information. Promoting Unicode has been an impactful thing. Over the years, I’ve taught the internationalization tutorial to thousands of people which I believe has had a long-term impact.

Q: How did you become involved in computer science?

A: I had a job in the 1980s at a company that built shopping centers, and, among other things, operated a bookstore. They had developed a retail system running on minicomputers that they sold to other independent bookstores, and I worked for the owner developing that system: that was my first professional job and it laid the groundwork for everything. Later, I had a job with the localization/internationalization group at AT&T: once you’ve shipped “not English” there’s no going back. I followed that to internationalization consulting, working with Bill Hall.

Q: What is your favorite book?

A: I am an avid reader so it’s hard to pick just one book. My preferred genres are fantasy and science fiction. (Fun fact: I went to Amazon to work on Kindle!)

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: Born in France, but my parents are Americans. When I was young, I lived in France and Germany. I went to high school and spent my formative years in Carmel, CA.

Q: Beach or Mountains?

A: Beach. I mean, it pretty much has to be “beach”, since I live in a town called “Dillon’s Beach”.

Q: Any advice for anyone interested in volunteering at Unicode?

A: Two things. First, jump in, the water’s fine. The Unicode space can be heavy with jargon and seem full of insider knowledge, but don’t be put off by that. Ask questions, because people are always super excited to share. There truly are no dumb questions. Don’t think just because things are operating a certain way, that you can’t question it, as there might be a new, better, or different way to do it. Maybe nobody said anything before! If you come with well-thought out questions, there will always be a positive reception. Unicode is a happy and helpful space to work in.

Second, give back. Unicode is an incredibly small organization. The number of contributors is way smaller than the impact Unicode has. And Unicode could do so much more, if only we had more people contributing. Linguistic and cultural support in software could be so much more powerful, if only we had contributions.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: I’ve spent 25 years at W3C and I’ve been the Chair of the Internationationalization Working Group for most of that time. We are a partner organization in promoting internationalization. We need help there too.

Adopt a Character and Support Unicode’s Mission

Looking to give that special someone a special something?
Or maybe something to treat yourself?

Adopt a character or emoji to give it the attention it deserves, while also supporting Unicode’s mission to ensure everyone can communicate in their own languages across all devices.

Each adoption includes a digital badge and certificate that you can proudly display!

Have fun and support a good cause

You can also donate funds or gift stock

As Unicode, Inc. is a US-based open source, open standards, non-profit, 501(c)3 organization, your contribution may be eligible for a tax deduction. Please consult with a tax advisor for details.