Thursday, July 15, 2010

Are you sure you want to be a webmaster?

Caveat – this article is written about being a webmaster rather than a web developer or website designer because they are all very different roles (as you’re about to find out). I would also like to add that none of these points relate directly to any one of my clients, they’re all very general and are garnered from conversations with industry peers.

Being a webmaster is just one of the ways I scratch together the living that allows me to put food in my mouth and keep a roof over my head. I also write a bit and take photos for folk, but my role as a freelance webmaster certainly dominates my working day. On the whole I love being a webmaster, but it can be frustrating when friends, family (hell, even clients) don’t understand what being a webmaster entails. There are also a LOT of kids leaving education wanting to forge a career working with the Internet, and I’m just not sure they know what they’re getting themselves into.

The purpose of this article is to try and explain what being a professional webmaster means on a day to day basis. If you’re keen to follow a career as a webmaster please don’t let me put you off, just open your eyes a little to the areas of skill you need to focus on developing.

The skills you need to be a professional webmaster.

Multilingual abilities.
You’ll need to know enough to get by in at least four programming languages; one client may favour PHP, while another swears by .NET and you’re bound to find some providers who swear by Cold Fusion or pure Java. Now multiply that list of technologies by about fifty and you’ll start to get an idea of just how many languages/ technologies you’ll need to have a nodding familiarity with on a daily basis. The real rub is that you’ll need to get good at any given tech with just a few hours notice. You need to be able to learn FAST!

Even although you may not technically be a website designer your clients will expect you to have the exact same level of artistic ability and higher level design skills. This will give you an insight into the world of real (qualified) designers when you spend hours working on a design only to have a client decide they hate it because it’s ‘a bit dull’. Of course you’ll want to know why they think it’s dull but the chances are they won’t be able to tell you; in fact they won’t be able to offer you any constructive advice at all so you’ll go away and attempt to pluck more fantastical ideas out of thin air. If you’re gifted with a client staff team who wants to get involved you may think your troubles are over, but oh, how mistaken are you… While it is undoubtedly a marvellous thing to have ‘buy in’ and ‘creative input’ from a staff team you’re still just as likely to find yourself presenting your plans to a board meeting only to have one of your faithful collaborators declare to all that they think your ideas are shit because, well, they’re ‘a bit dull’. You may think your extensive graphical experience and years of studying the way people use websites (usability) count for something in this situation – after all you can give clear logical business reasons why you’ve made the choices you have – but in reality someone will overrule any sense you’ve instilled in a design by demanding ‘more whizzy stuff’.

Disability legal rights expertise.
You do know your client’s website should be written in a way that’s compliant with disability law don’t you? Yes? Good. Can you explain why to your client? No? Oh…

Server maintenance expertise.
Although it may not be you actually administering the server your client’s website lives on you’d sure as hell better understand how servers work, and how clustering/ failover services affect the way databases are propagated and the effect on how your website is served to the public. Oh, and you’d better have a fundamental understanding of all the hosting types (Linux, Windows etc) because when your client’s host gives you the technical reason a server has been down for hours you’re going to have to translate that into lay language for your irate client. You see, most of the time your client will never actually speak to their host – that’s your job, and that job involves your client yelling at you about how their business is now ‘dead in the water’ and demanding to know exactly when to the nearest second normal service will resume. Of course when you speak to the host you know all too well the reason for the outage is going to be something that means a whole lot to you but nothing to your client. The host calmly tells you there’s a firewall issue at the data centre, you sigh and accept it, but when you relay the information to your client the chances are they’re going to have a near fatal heart attack/ stroke while getting so mad that their blood pressure rises so high their eyes bleed and snot fires out of their bright red nose with enough velocity to slice ice.

Marketing/ SEO.
Merely overseeing the development and management of a website isn’t enough, you also have to take responsibility for getting people to actually visit the site and use it. For small clients this may translate into a responsibility for marketing their company as a whole. SEO means ‘search engine optimisation’ (but you knew that of course), and in the real world it relates to how high up in search engine results your client’s site appears when folk search relevant terms. Your client sells rubber chickens, so when any one of the billions of humans on this planet searches Google for rubber chickens their website MUST be the first results. For about ten years now all webmasters/ developers have been creating websites that perform well in search engines by writing good copy, coding properly and about a trillion other things. Over the last couple of years a growing number of business owners are becoming aware of SEO and are likely to contact you demanding you ‘SEO their shit’. Well maybe that’s not exactly what they’ll say, but instead of treating SEO as a holistic concept that (with a great deal of effort) can produce pleasing business results you will now be expected to get your client to number one no matter who their competitors are. If your client sells sandwiches from a little van you’d better be able to beat Subway (and all other fast food chains) in search engine rankings or your entire webmaster effort will be declared ‘useless’ and you can kiss your professional reputation goodbye. I’m keen to help clients with SEO but it’s really tough to explain to them that SEO is more a complete discography than it is a hit single.


When a client sends a single line email asking you to add something to their website as a news item you’ll need to be able to turn that single line into a fully fledged article. Not only will you need to be able to pad out text without it appearing that you’ve done so, you’ll also need to be able to do it to a Pulitzer/ Nobel/ Booker prize winner level. On the other side of the coin you’ll also need to be a master editor – when a business owner hands you what they consider to be their masterpiece you’d better be sure as hell you can bash it into shape without upsetting any tender artistic sensibilities.

Time travel.

When you’re not predicting the future you may be expected to travel back in time and correct the mistakes caused by the bad decisions your clients made; bad decisions that you spent hours advising against. You want to know the best bit about this? There’s a very good chance your client will still assume it’s your fault that things have gone belly up.

And then there’s everything else...
I’m aware that this article could go on forever if I were to list all the skills you need to perfect in order to be a professional webmaster so I’ll stop here and knock out a bunch of bullet points:
  • Researcher
  • Social media/ networking guru
  • Domain registration expert
  • Content management system virtuoso (yup, you’ll need to know ALL the cms options!)
  • Brand manager
  • Photographer
  • Librarian
  • Cartographer
  • Diplomacy genius
  • Business logic/ process expert
  • Third party liaison
  • DNS manager
  • Security expert
  • Technical leader
  • Cellphone/ fax machine/ photocopier expert – if it’s got a plug or batteries then you’re responsible for it
  • Corporate culture specialist
  • Technology development thought leader
  • Psychic (you’ll need that to figure out what your client wants)
  • Email system expert (Exchange, Gmail, cPanel etc etc etc)
  • Network engineer
  • Affiliate manager
  • PR expert

Finally the most important fact to consider if you’re eyeing up a life as a freelance webmaster is that without fail 90% of your clients will expect to pay you no more than fifty quid for all these skills.

Good luck.

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