Running a web site requires a wide range of skills. Here's an overview of the talents needed to make your site a success -- and keep your job in the process.
Running a Web site requires a true Renaissance person, with skills ranging from software development to marketing demographics. Professional webmaster Chuck Musciano takes a look at all the hats a webmaster must wear, and sets the stage for his monthly Webmaster column that debuts in January. (2600 words)
In the classic Dr. Seuss tale The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Bartholomew is ordered by the king to remove his hat. Unfortunately, each attempt to doff his derby reveals another cap, more elaborate and ornate than the one just removed. Bartholomew runs through 500 hats in short order, much to the consternation of the king.
Bartholomew may have been able to stay one step ahead of the king, but we'll never know if he had what it takes to run a Web site on the Internet. For those of us who run those sites and proudly carry the title "webmaster," wearing many hats is nothing new. While our many hats (usually) aren't cause for official alarm, they nonetheless present a challenge. Balancing all those hats on one head is never easy, especially in the ever-changing world of the Web.
Being a successful webmaster requires a broad range of skills, from the
obvious, like systems administration expertise, to the arcane, like a
basic schooling in statistics and demographics. To the uninitiated,
webmastering seems to involve little more than tweaking a few
configuration files and knowing the difference between
<ul>. But those who
(like me) run full-fledged web sites know that this is only the first
thing you must know to successfully manage a site.
In this article, we'll look at a number of hats webmasters are asked to wear. For those of you running sites, I'm sure you'll see yourself in some of these descriptions. For those who have never tried to manage a successful site, I hope you'll come away with newfound respect for this newest of network professions -- and return for more.
This article is just the beginning. Starting in January, I'll be writing a regular SunWorld Online column that further explores the various issues webmasters face. Each month I'll offer guidance and describe techniques designed to help you make the most of your Web site, borrowing from my ongoing experience maintaining Harris Corp.'s "InfoServer." The column will dig beyond the high-level issues and offer detailed examples, sample scripts, and other specifics designed to improve your skills and enhance your site.
But before we delve into the details with the monthly column, let's review the broader topic: What skills must a successful webmaster possess?
Hat 1: Software developer
It is almost impossible to run a web site without at some point having to modify and compile source code. Good webmasters often wear the hat of software developer, modifying code, tracking down bugs, and building tools to support their sites.
A majority of web sites are built upon public-domain HTTP servers, most
notably the NCSA server and
the Apache server. Both servers
are available in precompiled versions to make life easier for the novice
webmaster, but many webmasters will want to compile their own version
to customize the server, apply patches to fix bugs, or port
the server to a machine for which no precompiled version exists. Even
if you just want to compile without examining the code, you'll need a
passing familiarity with
makefile and your local C
compiler to get the job done.
Of course, compiling the server is only the first step. If you plan to support forms, server-side includes, and CGI scripts on your site (and who doesn't?), you'll need to be able to create the supporting applications in your favorite programming language, be it C, perl, awk, or shell scripts. While there are plenty of skeleton example applications you can build upon, you'll still need to supply the core functionality that makes your form, include, or CGI application work.
Once your pages are up and running, you'll need to find, build, and install all sorts of web support tools. Whether you're creating reports to count the visits to your site, running a spider to check all the links on your pages, or converting legacy documents to HTML, you will need to build all sorts of tools to make your site a success. Many of these tools can be found on the website, but are rudimentary at best. A webmaster's expertise is needed to customize and modify the code to make things work right.
A webmaster who lacks basic software development skills is fighting an uphill battle. It's safe to say that if you begin the job of webmastering without these talents, you will have developed them by the time you are finished -- or else you will struggle with apprentice-level abilities and see your web site wallow in mediocrity.
Hat 2: System administrator
Building a server isn't enough. You must also get it running on your computer. Typically, this means you'll be accessing restricted system files and modifying configuration parameters. It is entirely possible that you can crash or otherwise impair the performance of your machine -- which may be serving critical business functions aside from your web site -- if you make these modifications incorrectly. Without a basic understanding of your computer's operating system, you will most likely fail in your efforts to run a reliable web server.
If you are running your server atop Unix (and if you aren't, you should be), you'll need root privileges to install your server and integrate it into the system startup and shutdown sequences. You'll need to modify the network services configuration files and you may have to schedule regular maintenance procedures to trim log files and generate reports. Sites that support multiple virtual servers also crave a good grounding in networking, domain name servers, and configuring network interfaces for your machine.
If you are running your server atop any variant of Windows, you'll need to know all sorts of arcane information about your machine's configuration. You'll have to build a TCP/IP stack for your machine, which is not much tougher than building a house of cards in a stiff breeze. You'll probably wind up moving jumpers around on network interface cards on more than one occasion. Of course, you'll need to know all the basic DOS stuff that 100 million other PC users have come to learn, including how much lower, upper, extended, and expanded memory you have, where your video direct-memory-access (DMA) buffers are located, and whether your serial ports are using interrupt request (IRQ) input 3 or 4.
If you are running a production-class server, you'll also need to perform basic system performance tuning. This is especially critical for high-demand servers that require rapid response time. At the very least, you should be able to find and display performance statistics to make sure your server is running well and not bogging down your network.
Hat 3: Page designer
A site is nothing without content. On many sites, content management is a distinctly different job than webmastering. Because it revolves around page design, graphic arts, and writing skills, content management is often handled by a professional writer, graphical designer, or artist -- or a combination of these.
Unfortunately, this does not relieve you of understanding how to build a page or two of HTML. In particular, your content managers often know a lot about page design and nothing about HTML. Guess who they call when they can't get a particular page to display correctly? Even worse, they often have grandiose ideas of multi-column pages with fancy imbedded multimedia displays. In these cases, your job may involve disappointing them, dragging them back to the reality of HTML page design.
You'll also find yourself confronted with lots of horrible, ugly pages that are nothing short of an embarrassment. You must work with the creators of these pages to evolve these well-intentioned but hopelessly misguided efforts into useful, accessible pages that people will actually want to visit.
In addition, you'll be presented with lots of ideas that are hardly worth the time to implement. "We'll put all our billing collection data from 1974 to the present online!" your local bean-counters will announce as they tremble in ecstasy at the mere thought of beans being counted at every desktop in the company. You must gently wake them from their dreams by explaining that, even with really cool inline images and a nifty feedback form, no one will ever visit such pages.
[SUGGESTED PULL QUOTE: Like that tree in the forest when no one is around to hear it fall, does a server exist if no one visits it?]
Hat 4: Marketeer
Your server is up, the system is tuned, your pages are ready. Now what? Like the tree that falls in the forest when no one is around to hear, does a server exist if no one visits it?
You must be prepared to market your site, promoting it on the Internet, encouraging people to visit, refining the content to make them want to return again and again. This means you must have Internet marketing skills, knowing how to reach the right people on the net and lure them to your site.
Site marketing varies for every site on the Web. Your content managers will be targeting their pages at specific segments of the Internet, and you will need to know how to reach those segments. Should you register your site with a general index like Yahoo? Integrate your pages into a service like ALIWEB, an Archie-Like Index to the Web? Use e-mail to notify people that your site is online? Post promotions to related mailing lists and USENET news groups? Develop collaborative relationships with similar content providers?
These and many other approaches can be used to promote a site. In general, your content managers will turn to you as an Internet expert when it comes time to boost your access counts and ensure that the right people visit your site.
You'll also be expected to understand the flip side of marketing: demographics and statistics. As soon as you start delivering content to the Web, your marketing groups will start asking about the visitors to your site. Where are they from? How did they find our site? Do they visit repeatedly? What were they looking for? How can we reach them again? You must be prepared to provide answers to the kinds of questions that magazine publishers typically ask of their circulation staff. Doing so may mean building or finding tools that analyze log files, compile access reports, or track site access.
Hat 5: Supervisor
Many sites are run as a one-man show, with the webmaster doing everything needed to get content on the Web. Increasingly, however, sites divide the tasks among a webmaster (for server management) and various designers (for content management). If this is the case, you may find yourself in a managerial role, directing a team to make your site a success.
Supervision brings to bear yet another set of skills, mostly people-oriented. You'll need to focus the talents of very different people to achieve a common goal. You may have to resolve disputes over how the site will be designed and managed.
Most importantly, you'll need to have a vision for your site, a clear picture of what that site should be and what you want it to accomplish. You'll need to convey that vision to your team, get people to believe in it, and achieve your goals. Without a strong vision, your site may never reach its full potential and instead may devolve into a collection of barely-related pages. You've seen these sites all over the Web: places that started out with the best of intentions but have since degraded to nothing more than a dusty, muddled storefront on the net.
Hat 6: Salesman
From the moment you start running a site, you'll find yourself selling it. Not as a service provider (although this is a lucrative business for many on the net), but as a company resource that has merit and requires ongoing funding. You must champion the value of your site.
At the very least, you'll need to sell your management on the idea that a good web server requires an investment in hardware and software to be done right. You might also want to consider selling your employer on the idea that you deserve a decent salary while running the server. At the very least, once your server goes beyond the prototype stage, it'll probably need some dedicated hardware. If you're fortunate enough to have your servers deemed mission-critical to your business, you may have to build a reliable 24 by 7 computing infrastructure around them.
You'll also need to sell your marketing, sales, and support organizations on the idea that a server is a useful tool that lets them reach more customers and increase revenue. Paradoxically, many people in marketing and public relations are completely unaware of the feasibility of using the Internet for marketing and PR, and consider it an unproved "toy" that warrants little attention compared to traditional tools such as printed brochures, television ads, and cold calls. While they may have heard of such things as the World Wide Web in the news, they know nothing about actually using it to do their job. They may have a knee-jerk Luddite reaction, fearing the new technology, that you'll have to overcome.
One of the most effective uses of the Web is to streamline your internal business practices, placing internal procedures and services on your private networks. (Private, internal web servers lately seem to be getting as much attention as public web sites, since they offer a low-cost alternative to proprietary solutions such as Lotus Notes. Internal web sites are especially attractive to companies that already have Web-surfing employees and a public web server, since the addition of an internal site requires only a few incremental steps.) You'll need to sell organizations like Human Resources on the idea of using the Web to better serve company employees. Winning over a few key users in the early stages of developing your web site can guarantee future success of the server and promote job security.
Hat 7: Technologist
The only constant on the Internet is change. Almost every aspect of the Web changes continuously, from the content of the web sites to the standards upon which the Web is based. As a webmaster, you need to track and understand these changes to keep your site up to date.
Web standards continuously evolve. You'll want to check in with the Internet Engineering Task Force every so often to make sure that something new isn't about to take your site by surprise. HTML standards (such as The HTML 2.0 Proposed Standard) are evolving, and your content managers will need to know about new features as they arrive. You'll also want to track such things as Java and VRML, which promise to deliver new functions and dimensions to the Web.
Server technology continuously changes. Public-domain servers endure constant patches, upgrades, and expansions. Commercial servers evolve to new versions fairly regularly, with bug fixes constantly being made available to registered users.
Browsers change, too. Knowing which browsers are popular is critical, since your content providers will shape their content to match the features of these browsers. When a popular browser like Netscape adds a new feature, you need to know about it and convey that knowledge to others working on your site.
Finally, you'll need to become an expert in searching the Web for new tools and support software. When some new browser becomes available, you'll need to find it, build it, and install it quickly, before your users or begin clamoring for it. And as security, transaction, and traffic-auditing technologies evolve, so must your site.
You still want this job?
In spite of this daunting (and no doubt incomplete) list of skills, most webmasters wouldn't trade their job for any other. Although demanding, the work can be extraordinarily satisfying and fun. Webmasters typically find great satisfaction in working on something that is both leading edge and broadly accepted. The Web is the killer app of this decade; being a webmaster makes you a part of that phenomenon.
I've only touched upon the skills need to master a web. In the months to come, I'll visit these (and many other) topics in more depth and detail, describing the nuts and bolts of web server management. Most webmasters learn everything they know by the seat of their pants. I'd like to start documenting and spreading that knowledge to others, making webmasters such as you more effective and less frustrated. To that end, if there is a webmastering topic that is near and dear to your heart that you want addressed, or if you have suggestions and tips for all the other webmasters out there, I want to hear about it. Share with me, and I'll share with others. Together, we'll explore the many facets of managing a site on the Internet.
About the author
Chuck Musciano has been running Melmac and the HTML Guru Home Page for two years, 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. His book, HTML: The Definitive Guide, is currently available from O'Reilly and Associates.
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