Webmaster by Chuck Musciano

Webmaster Ph.D. revisited: More thoughts on the Webmaster's professional education

Readers were quick to point out the holes in our initial curriculum. Here's how we've filled the gaps

December  1997
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Everyone seemed to have something to say about our September column on the ideal Webmaster curriculum. In fact there was so much excellent commentary on the column that we've decided to publish some of it here. Find out what SunWorld readers thought we missed as we revisit the Webmaster Ph.D. (1,700 words)

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Wow! It seems I struck a nerve when I outlined a proposed curriculum for aspiring Webmasters in September's column. I offered a list of courses you'd need to earn a degree in Webmastery, running the gamut from basic computer science, to English composition, to business skills. I closed by asking for anything I might have missed, and boy, did you respond! Your comments and feedback are most gratifying, and it's worth another column to share them with the world.


More skills
Many of you pointed out that I completely missed any sort of database training. Many apologies, especially to all my DBA friends. Understanding database technology is critical to running an effective Web site. The Web is about delivering information, and most information, whether it's a list of products for sale, stock quotes, or the movies currently playing at your local theater, is stored in large databases. A good Webmaster should understand how databases are designed and built, and should know how to connect to a database from a Web server so that needed data can be extracted.

You'll also need to know Perl, that wonderful little language that's at the heart of millions of CGI scripts around the world. Perl has become a standard programming tool of Webmasters everywhere, and you'll need to know it, too. But don't stop at Perl. Make sure you know sed, grep, and awk, those other "little languages" that make Unix (and real computers) so useful. If you're running NT, you'll want to brush up on Visual Basic or a similar scripting language. But I warn you, you'll never get the same gut-level satisfaction from writing a VB tool that you'll get when you craft a great little piece of Perl.

I touched on graphic design in my original column, but several of you went further, suggesting explicit training in graphical editing tools, along with training in audio and video technology. This makes sense, since you'll need to create images for your site, and in many cases, record and edit audio and video sequences for your pages as well. Understanding how to create and deliver these media is necessary as the Web becomes ever more focused on multimedia-based sites.

Finally, a few people suggested that Webmasters need to know how to keep learning and staying informed. I don't know if a course in library science is warranted, but every Webmaster should cultivate reliable sources of information that track technology, business, and the media.

You want fries with that?
One end of almost every connection on the Web has a customer on it. This is either explicit, if you sell products, or implicit, if you deliver information as part of your overall site strategy. Your site should be designed to serve those customers, meeting their needs on this visit, encouraging them to return in the future, and making their experience a positive one.

Keeping customers happy is not a trivial job. As one reader pointed out, Webmasters often receive e-mail messages from disgruntled or confused visitors who need to be soothed, educated, and satisfied. Webmasters also get arcane requests for all sorts of products, and you had better be prepared to route them appropriately before you lose their business. (My previous employer manufactured everything from semiconductors to television broadcast equipment, and I regularly received orders for chips and related parts. I once received a request from Russia for a complete radio broadcast station, priced for delivery to the Ukraine!)

In fact, a Webmaster is surrounded by customers. The visitors to your site are obviously customers, but so are your CIO, your marketing folks, and anyone else in your company who expects value from your site. While external customers want information and products, internal customers are looking for return on investment, demographic data, customer leads, and improved advertising effectiveness. Failure to manage those external customers is rarely fatal; but annoying the internal people can be, shall we say, deleterious to your career.

Internal customer management is an acquired skill, rarely taught in most schools. Learn how to tailor information for specific audiences, keeping things at a high level for management, exposing details to your more technical audience. Learn the language and buzzwords of marketing, finance, human resources, and upper management; you'll fit in much better when asked to present to those groups. Finally, read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. You'll learn more from that one book on customer management than in an entire graduate degree program.

How do I learn all this?
Most readers couldn't help but notice that anyone actually working as a Webmaster would never have the time to learn everything I suggested. Some of you were offended by the broad range of stuff I thought every Webmaster should know. I didn't think I was going too far, and the suggestions I received for additional courses bear this out.

In reality, anyone running a Web site is doing just fine -- courses or not. But how much better would your site be if you had all that information under your belt? The goal is to make yourself the best possible Webmaster, not just an adequate one.

Sadly, most of us will not have the time to master all of these skills. In many cases, we should instead strive to build teams that collectively possess these skills. In that respect, a course on team building is in order.

Good teams are not just thrown together; they evolve and grow, tempered by shared challenges, success, and failure. They communicate well, are forgiving of mistakes, and seek to make their sum greater than their parts. There are few experiences more gratifying than being part of a good team, doing things as a group that you could never accomplish alone. It is ironic that many of us in computing are stark pioneers, used to working alone -- just ourselves and a keyboard. To build a good team, you must learn to trust other people, work with them, grow with them, and complement their abilities with your own.

Jack of all trades
Another reader pointed out that acquiring a degree in Webmastery is probably a mistake, given the rapid change in this industry. Starting a degree program today to finish in four or five years is a foolish decision when the entire industry reinvents itself every eighteen months. Two years ago, many were fretting over HTML 4.0 and standards for frames and tables; in two more years, the nascent Cascading Style Sheet standard will be ancient history. How can you take four years to learn a trade that changes every two?

We are better off, this reader advises, earning a broad degree in general computer science. Focusing on Webmastering condemns us to the fate of the specialist, who learns more and more about less and less, until finally he knows everything about nothing. A broader perspective and a more general degree prepares us not only for the role of Webmaster, but also for other positions in the computing field. Of course, you'll want to avoid falling prey to the fate of the generalist, who knows less and less about more and more, until he knows nothing about everything.

A rose by any other name
Finally, one reader took me to task for using the title, "Webmaster." His contention is that anyone doing anything even remotely connected to the Web has taken to calling himself a Webmaster, completely diluting the value of the word. The reader proposed instead a range of specific titles within the "Webmaster" field. Titles like "site manager," "content coordinator," and "Web systems administrator" are far more descriptive and specific than the overused "Webmaster."

While I used "Webmaster" in a more general sense, this point is well taken. Early in your development as a Webmaster, it is easy to think of one position as all-encompassing. As you mature in your skills, you realize that running a Web site takes the efforts of many people, each of whom bring value to the site. For small companies, where funds are not available for a full Web support organization, you may wear many hats in the course of a day. Larger organizations will focus on team building, as we discussed earlier. For them, more specific titles make sense.

Titles already exist for many of the roles in Web site management. Delivering data via the Web is just another form of publishing, one that uses networks and computer displays instead of paper and ink. A "Web content coordinator" is more commonly known as an "editor." Those of you who fancy yourselves "Web site managers" are not that far from "publishers." In fact, there are many analogs between the Web and publishing, and it behooves all would-be Webmasters (excuse me, site managers and content coordinators) to spend some time learning a bit more about printing and publishing.

Finding the time
Perhaps the most amusing comment came from a reader who pointed out that you're going to need a course in time management if you really expect to learn all this stuff and keep your day job too. Certainly good advice, and a course in stress management couldn't hurt either. A good sense of humor helps immeasurably, but you won't find that in any curriculum.

This month's column closes two years of columns for SunWorld. Next month begins a new year, both calendar and column-wise; with it, we'll take a look at technologies and trends that may or may not pan out in 1998. Until then, keep that great feedback coming, keep your sites online, and keep learning and growing as a Webmaster.


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 chuck.musciano@sunworld.com.

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