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Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Web-related careers booming

With nothing but growth ahead, the career risks appear low

June  1996
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Edgar philosophizes on the growth of the Web and possibilities in store for businesses and developers alike. Who stands to gain? Who will miss out? And where will the Net be when the dust settles? (1,700 words)

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Dear Edgar,
I read your article about startups, and also the one on the Intranet, with great interest. I'm considering getting involved with a small, new startup in New York City which is essentially a design shop. They formed last year to develop CD-ROMs, but have since changed their focus to the Internet -- designing Web sites and consulting big corporations in how to best use their online presence.

This company I am interviewing with will succeed if the Web proves to be a successful tool for business. My question is: Will business truly come to the Net, or will problems such as virtual chaos and the insecure exchange of money reveal the Net to be an overhyped phenomenon in the vein of artificial intelligence? Will the companies who have lost countless tens of thousands already soon pack up and lead the way back to the tried and true ways of making money? Signed,
Career Minded about the NetResult

Dear NetResult,

The Internet is doubling every nine to 12 months with no sign of letting up. Some say it is a medium which will bring about democracy, empowerment, and peace on earth; others say it is a hyped virtual world that will go the way of artificial intelligence and interactive TV. Neither exaggeration is the case. But the hype skews the perceptions of a medium which is, in fact, still in its infancy. There are only about 10 million Americans and untold millions overseas on the Net today and the potential for further growth astounds.

The Internet is a powerful medium that allows people to interact quickly, easily, and cheaply. In an information age, it is an invaluable tool for almost every kind of business. Now that Bill Gates has helped to get a PC in almost every home and on almost every office desktop, these computers are beginning to get wired and talk to each other. As Sun has realized for years, the power of that network is worth more than the sum of the machines.


Career opportunities explode
In the general sense, moving your career over to the Internet industry is not a very risky venture, as the Net's not going away anytime soon. It still remains to be seen which little startups will make their fortune, but it is our biggest clients who lead the way, investing in hardware and software to make fast, powerful connections for their businesses and their employees.

Many of our clients are telling me that as more and more of their business connections develop Web pages and speak to each other in this medium, much of their paper-based materials are becoming obsolete. Why print a new brochure every quarter when it can be updated instantly on the Web server? Why print, copy, fax, and distribute daily memos to everyone in the company, or to every office in the country, when it can be sent to every desktop with the click of a mouse?

Gaining simple access to the Internet is a minor investment. For less than $50 a month, a company can get an e-mail address and a few megs of Web server space. Then, in the true spirit of client/server, as the company expands, so, too, can its online presence grow and evolve, without having to completely overhaul existing systems. Every business stands to gain from having at least an e-mail address to communicate and a Web page to list its wares and contact information.

The Pencom Interactive Career Center Web site has been wildly successful; but that is largely because our clientele has always been composed of engineers who are intimately involved with the latest technologies -- they're already on the Web. We list jobs, offer salary information, and give people the opportunity to apply for positions directly. People scan our pages at their leisure and some contact us; we find them jobs, staff our clients projects, and grow our business. In a year since its inception it has made us nearly $750,000.

The potential of consumer marketing
Even Proctor & Gamble -- the biggest marketing force in this century -- has jumped feet first into the Web. They are boldly exploring a wide range of approaches with the goal of understanding this new medium better than any of their packed-food competitors. Their findings already show that the Web will provide unique new ways to supplement the image they have built with consumers. Interestingly, our research group's internal report emphasizes that P&G was also one of the first pioneers in the 1970s to understand and profit from the communications potential in cable-TV programming.

Now, a whole range of companies are attempting to sell their products on the Web -- products ranging from newspapers to margarine. Does I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Butter stand to make millions from the Net? Probably not. But if it is determined to garner sales from an online presence, it will have to adapt to the medium and the culture, much as Proctor & Gamble is attempting to do. Many such companies are devising creative ways to draw people to their sites, such as contests, cool graphics, and interesting links.

Does this mean I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Butter should play it safe and stick to traditional TV and print ads? No. At the very least it should keep an online brochure with nutritional information and ways to contact the company. At the very most it may want to attempt to attract an audience through interesting content and promotions, such that the product is merely a backdrop. In the actual page for this butter substitute, it has done just that, offering pictures and soundclips of Fabio (its sponser) as well as recipes for sweethearts. Another examples is one of the first consumer companies with a strong Web presence and an innovative approach tailored to the medium, Joe Boxer. Interestingly, this company has profited heavily from this exposure and its ability to draw users back to its entertaining site.

Evolving business models
Back when America Online started offering content from third-party providers such as Time magazine and MTV, it paid these companies for their information. Now that AOL is 4 to 5 million users large, these providers pay AOL. Such service providers are not the Net per se, but this example demonstrates how quickly and drastically the online world is evolving. No one can say for sure who will make money and how.

Recently Wall Street has concentrated on search engines and information indexes, such as Yahoo. This is due primarily to the reality of "hits" (the elusive, not-so-exact measure of how many people have visited a Web page) and the concomitant potential for advertising. If thousands of people visit Yahoo every day, the laws of business and marketing say that advertising on these pages must be worth something. But there are not yet enough dependable surveys; there is no Net-based Nielsonesque rating service; no one knows the effectiveness of such advertising today. Soon there will be more exact measures. Banking on this aspect of the Net is a gamble.

One such gambling company is Juno, which is betting that advertising will indeed pay off on the Net. They just introduced free e-mail accounts. In exchange for the software and unlimited e-mail, users are subjected to advertisements scrolling across the screen. Here they are gambling that not only will users make that exchange, but also that advertisers will see an increase in the bottom line once they do -- driving up the demand for space on its service.

Secure commerce means new opportunities
Many say that the Internet will not be a viable tool for businesses until actual currency can be exchanged, and that this may never happen because of security limitations. Both assertions are wrong. As I mentioned earlier, businesses stand to gain from e-mail and the Web as means of communication and online brochures -- even if seamless commerce never comes to the Web. Commerce will come, but that still doesn't mean that everyone stands to gain. I cannot see people shopping for skis, cars, and shoes over the Web and paying for it right there in the virtual marketplace. This kind of shopping exists with the relatively small, but lucrative mail-order industry. The same general kind of products will be bought from a computer screen as are bought from the pages of catalogues.

As for the actual technology of secure money exchange, it is derived from cryptology and is being batched into the latest Netscape servers. There will always be superhackers like Kevin Mitnick, putting fear into the industry; but don't forget that many of your transactions are already automated and computerized. If you would never give your credit card over the phone, you may never trust similar purchases over the Net. Otherwise, it's essentially the same thing. There's always a degree of risk.

The major breakthrough will occur if and when seamless money transfer is implemented. The idea is that you can buy anonymous digital cash that you can use to pay for services or products with the click of a button. As it stands today people would not stop and pull out their wallet to look at the CNN pages. But many argue that if it cost a few keystrokes that debited 5 cents from your account, this would work. I think it will move more towards a cable model, where the big sites will come under a general provider that offers a connection as well as basic service and a choice of premium sites.

Is the Web your career answer?
This industry is not a flash in the pan, but the next logical step in the world of computing. The closed, proprietary mainframe systems have evolved into the more open client/server paradigm. Now everyone is becoming networked on a global scale and information exists in that cloud called the Net. The rise of Netscape is not an aberration; it is a hint to the days ahead when the interface to the network is the most important application on the machine.

As with most new fields, most companies starting up today will fail. Some will succeed. Regardless, the 10 million Americans on the Net today will soon be 20 million, 50 million, 100 million. The people that will build this infrastructure will be software engineers. Web-based Intranet development will generate some lucrative niches in the industry -- but only on the assumption that Web-based computing is the wave of the future. And it is.

In summary, I think you stand to gain with this powerful technology. And in answer to your question, Pencom is staffing with the expectation that commerce will indeed come to the Web. The potential varies from company to company, industry to industry. Those who have overleapt with misguided enthusiasm will scale back. But it would be folly to divest altogether. In the larger picture it is important not to focus to much on TV vs. the Internet -- one medium versus another. What is important is building a presence in the virtual spaces which is a natural, profitable extension of the business in the physical world.


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