Webmaster Ph.D.: coming soon to a school near you
What should you be studying to become a top-notch Webmaster?
Want to become a Webmaster? Ask any Webmaster where he or she got training, and you're not likely to hear much about formal Webmaster programs. This is a profession that is learned in real-time. But that's no reason to assume there couldn't be a Webmaster curriculum. This month we propose what it should be; and if you're about to return to school, you may want to take notes. (1,800 words)
ot so long ago, I received e-mail from a reader posing a simple question. It seems this person really wanted to become a Webmaster, but readily admitted that he did not know the first thing about creating and managing a Web site. He was prepared to go back to school to learn what it would take to be a good Webmaster. His question to me: what should he study to be successful?
A quick answer seems obvious: learn HTML, of course, and a little programming, and get some experience on a PC or a real computer running Unix, and you can pretty much fake your way through the rest of it. Isn't that what everyone else has done?
After a little more thought, I realized that anyone can call himself
a Webmaster, but being a good Webmaster requires skills from a wide
range of disciplines: from computing (of course) to graphic design
to law and business. Most Webmasters do not spend their days simply
hacking HTML; they are doing everything required to make a site
attractive, successful, and in most cases, profitable. Top
Webmasters can earn close to six figures (more in some markets);
there must be more to the job than getting all the
<a> tags right.
Without further ado, here is my suggested course of study for any potential Webmaster:
No matter how slick the result, at the core of any good Web site is a well-run computer system. Anyone wanting to wear the badge of "Webmaster" should know how to acquire, configure, run, and administer their server. This implies a good grounding in the basics of computing.
Any Webmaster should know how operating systems work, since your server only runs well when the OS is clicking along. You'll need a basic understanding of how computers work, how software interacts with hardware, and how disks and tapes and memory store data. One or two semesters of basic computing should do the trick to cover all of this.
As an aside, I am constantly appalled at the number of college grads professing to be computing professionals who have absolutely no idea how computers work. I don't expect everyone to be chip designers, but anyone with a degree in computing should be able to explain, in detail, what happens between pressing the key on the keyboard and seeing the character appear on the screen.
The Web only works when you connect computers together, so you'll need a semester of basic networking, including coverage of network protocols, addressing, and routing. You'll need to know both kinds of NICs to cut it as a Webmaster, along with how to register domain names, manage e-mail, and create virtual hosts. Better make that two semesters of networking. (Puzzling over the two NICs? For shame! See below for the answer).
Security is important, too. Getting hacked looks bad on any resume. A course on security basics, how to lock down a system, and how to detect and recover from security violations is a must.
Most importantly, you'll want to keep that Web site running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That means you'll need to acquire skills that aren't taught anywhere but in the school of hard knocks: mainframe computing discipline. A good Webmaster knows how to manage a production computing environment, has a sound disaster recovery plan, implements a change management system for his systems, and lives by the rules of RAS: reliability, availability, and serviceability. Better to spend time learning these skills in school, instead of standing in front of the CIO later, explaining why your site was knocked off the air when the power went out.
It goes without saying that you'll need a course on HTML. Make sure you cover all the latest and greatest stuff, so you'll be well-versed when it comes time to create your own pages. If you want to wimp out and use any of the popular HTML editors, go ahead, but that's no excuse for not learning HTML. You'll need those authoring skills when you need tags that your editor doesn't support, and when you are surfing other pages, "borrowing" someone else's nifty hack.
After all that, can you be a Webmaster? Hardly. If you learn all we've covered so far, you'll be running a tight, reliable system, but you won't have any pages to show for it. Now you have to learn how to create content.
Begin by learning to write. Take the time to learn to write well. At the very least, when your site goes belly up, your resume and cover letter will be well-written. You'll need at least two semesters of basic grammar, composition, and writing. Make it three if you are the typical semi-literate engineer. You aren't finished until you can explain the difference between "that" and "which."
Many Webmasters spend a lot of time managing content provided by others. While this provides hours of entertainment, laughing at other people's writing, you'll also be forced to turn this dross to gold. A course on editing would help, so make sure you take one. At the very least, get good at throwing around words like "dross."
The Web is a visual environment, so you'll need to know something about visual design. I firmly believe that good designers are born, not made, so not everyone can hope to excel in this area. Still, a course in basic design will help anyone avoid lots of common mistakes, and you'll learn enough to help you hire a good designer to make your pages look great.
Turning a profit
Now you're ready: computer-savvy, literate, and able to keep from matching stripes with plaids. Still, you've got to eat, so you'll need a grounding in business.
As the Web matures, companies look to their sites like any other business resource: is it worth the investment? Unfortunately, a Web site is a difficult asset to pin down. It's easy to cost-justify a new assembly line, or copier, or even a computer system. Web sites, on the other hand, often have much of their value tied up in nebulous items like name recognition, customer satisfaction, and process streamlining. Narrow minded accounting types have a hard time buying this touchy-feely stuff when it comes time to balance the books, so you'd better be prepared to do some fast talking to keep your site funded and online.
Begin with a course on business basics: accounting, cost models, cash flow. Understand appreciation and amortization, how money works for and against you, and how a business balances its books. At some point in the life of a Web site, you'll be asked to show that the site is benefiting the bottom line. Learn how to compute a bottom line, learn the lingo that the financial types expect to hear as you argue your case, and learn how to get the funds you'll need to keep your site alive.
If you are a private Webmaster, instead of a Webmaster within a corporation, you'll have additional difficulties. As a contractor, you'll be running your own business, and you'll definitely need to know the ins and outs of business accounting and maybe even a bit of tax law. Throw in another semester of advanced business administration for the more entrepreneurial among you.
Web sites are like any other product. They must be marketed and promoted to become successful and stay that way. You'll need at least two semesters of marketing and advertising, and some experience selling wouldn't hurt either. This is a tougher field to master, because the Web is so new that the marketing books are just being written that focus on the new medium. Still, a successful Webmaster knows how to advertise his site, and knows how, if necessary, to place ads on his site to generate revenue.
Most top-level Webmasters are not running the show by themselves. Instead, they manage a team of people who administer Web resources for an entire corporation. To be an effective team leader, you'll need a course or two in management, leadership, and group dynamics. Much of being a good leader is learned on the job, but a basic grounding in aiming a group of people at a goal never hurts. A course in psychology wouldn't hurt either.
An increasing number of issues on the Web are focusing on the legal aspects of the technology: copyright, libel, censorship, and appropriate use. To make sense of this, you should take an introductory law course. I doubt many exist, but a course focusing on domestic and international aspects of computing, networking, and the Web would be an excellent addition to the curriculum. It also helps to know how to sue someone when they pirate your site and make off with all your hard work.
Is that all?
Pretty much. You'll need the requisite number of basket-weaving courses to round out the course hours, but the core knowledge is all in there. Now, a quick show of hands: how many Webmasters out there have formal training in all of these areas?
Of course. None of us. We all learned this stuff by the seat of our pants. Five years ago, Webmasters simply did not exist. What has become a hot new profession was shaped by the experiences of everyone who put anything on the Web. Still, that's no excuse for not formalizing the job. I imagine the more enterprising colleges and universities are creating degree programs that focus on the Web; we should start speaking up now to shape what those newly minted Webmasters will be taught in the next four years.
What would you put in a Webmaster curriculum? What did I leave out? Where did I go overboard? I'd appreciate your thoughts, and I'll share them with everyone in a future column.
Before I forget, those two NICs I was talking about before are the Network Interface Card, which attaches your computer to a network, and the Network Information Center, which manages the registration and distribution of Internet domain names and addresses. One NIC won't work without the other.
Finally, if you are looking for a good book to base your HTML courses on, look no further than the second edition of my book, HTML The Definitive Guide (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=1565922352/sunworldonline). I'll be giving extra credit to anyone who chooses to use it.
About the author
Chuck Musciano has been running various Web sites, including the HTML Guru Home Page, since early 1994, serving up HTML tips and tricks to hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. He's been a beta-tester and contributor to the NCSA httpd project and speaks regularly on the Internet, World Wide Web, and related topics. Reach Chuck at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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