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In Search of the Perfect Webmaster

by Glen Emerson Morris

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One of the biggest problems facing businesses about to launch an Internet Website is finding people qualified to staff the project. Web technology is so new, few people have a documented track record of being successful Website administrators. This isn't the kind of staff position you can insist on job applicants having five years experience, let alone ten, because the job simply didn't exist prior to 1993.

Website management is so new that only recently has a word for the job title evolved, "Webmaster", though exactly what a Webmaster does isn't particularly well defined yet. Loosely applied, it means the person who bears the ultimate responsibility for creating and maintaining a company's Website on the Internet. This is not turning out to be a simple job.

The creation and maintenance of a Website involves artistic, marketing, and engineering elements. Artistic issues deal with the look and feel of the Website. Marketing issues are concerned defining the goals of the Website and the content needed to reach them. Engineering issues are concerned with how the Website is actually programmed to achieve the defined artistic and marketing goals. Few people are skilled in all three areas. Large companies solve the problem simply by the number of people they throw at the project. A company like Apple or Microsoft may have a director, or possibly even a vice president, in charge of Internet communications, with separate graphics, marketing, and engineering departments reporting to them. Smaller business may only have one part time Webmaster on call. Understanding what mix of skills a particular business's Website administrator should have depends of the needs of that specific business. A proper understanding of those needs is critical to the success of the Website.

Most would-be web masters come from either graphic art or engineering careers. Many graphic artists are jumping on the Internet bandwagon by learning the HTML scripting language used to create Websites. The job description Webmaster is becoming about as popular with freelance artists as the title "desktop publishing consultant" was in the late eighties. Artists are the most common type of applicant for a Webmaster position, and in the case of moderately simple Websites, they are adequate for the job.

Engineers are another source of web masters. The advantage of having an engineering background for the job is that sometimes something more than HTML is required.

If the Website is used to collect information from current and potential customers, or to provide access to the business's inventory, or handle online sales with encrypted credit card purchases, the Website will need programming skills well beyond HTML. Several programming languages have been developed to provide additional features over HTML, these include CGI, Perl, and Java. People proficient in these languages can earn between $35 and $85 an hour, sometimes more. In many cases, once the additional scripting is written, it can usually be maintained by someone only familiar with HTML.

The degree of maintenance required is also essential in determining what kind of talent the Website will need; mainly, will the Website's files will be located on a computer system on premises, or on a server provided by an Internet service provider. By storing the web files on an ISP's computer, many of the maintenance issues are taken care of by the ISP. The ISP provides regular backups, operating system upgrades, and high speed Internet access. In Silicon Valley, ISPs are offering business accounts which allow for between 20 and 40 megs of online space for about $60 a month. A business using this kind of account doesn't need to have special high capacity phone lines like ISDN or T1 service, just a standard phone line connected to a modem equipped computer to update the Website as needed.

Another engineering issue is the level of high tech bells and whistles planned for the Website. If the Website is going to be technologically aggressive, for instance feature real time audio and video, the site may need the services of a full, or at least part time, engineer familiar with digital audio and video.

The last category of Website issues, marketing, is the most problematic. Would-be Webmasters with marketing experience are rare, which is unfortunate, because marketing is the most critical element of a successful Website. Graphics and engineering are only the means to an end; however good they may be, if the Website doesn't help sales of the business's product or services, the Website has failed.

Most businesses will have to settle for someone with either an art or an engineering background, and learn to understand the limitations of each. Art and engineering oriented Webmasters may not understand how to make their company's case to consumers effectively. They'll have to work closely with marketing, advertising, and sales elements within the company to be effective. This may be one time when the product of a committee may outperform individual efforts, and it's not surprising.

The perfect Webmaster would be a one man committee; proficient in graphic design, engineering, and marketing. Given the over-specialization in business the last few decades, finding someone with all three skill sets is unlikely. Expecting two out of three is even pushing it.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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