The Webmaster: Online Everyman
BackBy Daniel Margolis — November 2007
As the name immediately implies, the webmaster is master of all things Web-related within a given organization. But the reality of a webmaster’s daily existence can vary widely from person to person and project to project.
At first glance, the term “webmaster” might seem like an ill-conceived Spider-Man antagonist or maybe a position of great influence in “Dungeons & Dragons.” In reality, however, it’s one of the most challenging and varied IT jobs roles a person can tackle.
A webmaster is responsible for designing, developing, marketing or maintaining a Web site. As such, he or she (the position is known as “webmistress” in its feminine form) will likely have to master a wide variety of technologies, often without much in the way of time to surmount learning curves.
Because webmasters will end up being a company’s online point man, they are required to be all things to all people. Webmasters heed the call whenever anyone has any interaction or problem with that company’s online processes. Not surprisingly, long hours come with the territory.
“I work ridiculous hours, to be honest,” said Joel Tosi, Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) webmaster.
The CME is an American financial exchange that trades equities, currencies, commodities and interest rates, as well as real estate and weather derivatives.
Publications and institutions around the world rely on the financial data its Web site generates, which increases the pressure on a CME webmaster.
“The biggest thing with the Web site is, although we don’t publicize any service-level agreements, if something’s not available within a minute of people expecting it to be there, I get in a whole world of hurt pretty quick,” Tosi said. “That’s another reason for the long hours because I get calls at 4 a.m. from London saying, ‘Why isn’t this file there?’”
Recently, Tosi and his team were uploading a large volume of data to the site, and they hit a snag.
“We had a process in place that creates a report and puts it on the Web site, and that process was delayed because of the large volume, I think by about a half hour or so,” Tosi said. “So, I got a call from The Wall Street Journal. They needed to process something on their side to publish the paper and were held up because they needed our report to go live.”
Another reason Tosi and his team are working exceptionally long hours is that they’re substantially updating their Web site, gutting its back-end architecture and going from one to two data centers, as well as four Web servers to two farms of eight Web servers.
“Typically, at least for the past few months here, I tend to work regular eight- to nine-hour days, then I’ll go home, and I’ll see my family until they go to bed, and then I’ll work another three or four hours at night and then come up and do it all over again the next day,” Tosi said.
Where Marketing and Development Meet
Tosi earned a bachelor’s degree from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology before quitting an MBA program a year in because he didn’t think it was going to get him anywhere. He got his start in IT doing Java consulting, then he briefly worked for a start-up dot-com in 2000. From there, he went to a software company, doing Java and Web development for about a year before moving to CME, where he’s been for the last five years.
Before coming onboard at CME, Tosi earned his Sun Certified Programmer & Developer for Java certification during the first round of certification to be done for Java. Since then, Tosi has earned no further certifications — he said that in his job role, he takes on so many different technologies that he can’t certify in every one he uses.
“It wouldn’t really be feasible for me to get certified in 100 different technologies,” Tosi said. “I just need to know them well enough to know when it’s right and when it’s wrong.”
A typical day for Tosi while CME has been building its new Web site illustrates why a webmaster must be all things to all people in a given organization.
“My day consists of two distinct sides,” Tosi said. “One is meeting with the business side, meeting with the marketing department and the people who will be driving what needs to be done to make sure we address all of their needs and requirements. The other side is meeting with my developers to make sure we are putting a framework together that will meet these requirements.“
“So, it’s pretty much split right down the middle, getting the requirements and then actually doing the architecture to get things ready to go.”
Situations like this point to a need for webmasters to have solid communication skills.
“Because we do work with marketing and also work with people inside the Exchange who are not technical, we have to have the communication skills to take what they want done and transfer it to our language and then take what we’re doing and transfer it back to their language,” Tosi said.
When his team is not engaged in a large site rebuild, on a day-to-day basis, Tosi is still engaged in enhancing the site and researching new technologies that could allow for improvements to the site.
“Because the Web changes so frequently, I’m always looking around, trying to see what the new technologies are, what’s coming up,” Tosi said. “We’re a Java shop here, but I’ll look at whether it makes sense to use Ruby on Rails for certain applications, whether it makes sense to use PHP, what technologies fit in, where to use other technologies, just to get the best overall user experience.”
Tosi requires this level of versatility from everyone on his team.
“What I’ve been preaching to my team as far as our own processes is that I want the right solution to the problem,” he said. “I don’t want them to just say it has to be XYZ because we do XYZ. So, for example, if the Web site’s pulling slow, I need my team to be familiar with Linux to be able to find out if it’s an HTTP setting in the OS itself, or is it something at a larger level, is it a firewall group blocking something? While we don’t get very deep into everything, we have to be varied in our exposure.”
A Juggling Act
As is the case with many IT job roles, there doesn’t seem to be a standard academic and training background and career path for webmasters.
“There’s really no typical approach,” Tosi said. “I think it’s just your imagination and where your creativity takes you.”
Nathan Hall is a webmaster for Chili Interactive, a Web design company based in Colorado. As a webmaster, Hall’s background is at the opposite end of the spectrum as Tosi’s science foundation — Hall came to the IT field with a studio arts degree from the University of Colorado, which has led him to concentrate more on front-end Web site design.
Hall got out of school at the beginning of the dot-com boom, starting as a designer and then seeing his job role bloom into the more widely rounded capacity of a webmaster. He said the job tends to break off in two paths.
“One is coming from the whole engineering perspective into the webmaster role,” he said. “The problem with this is you miss half of what you do as a webmaster in terms of being able to do any design work and adjust any front-end display. Once the site is built, that’s something that happens quite frequently.”
Hall identified the other path as coming from a design perspective.
“I came from designing the front-end usability side, focusing on the usability of the site and designing the cascading style sheets, programming HTML and working with engineering teams,” Hall said.
He added that right out of college, he took care to grasp as much of the engineering component of Web design as he could.
“That has helped me because I’m able to fulfill more of the needs of the client,” Hall said. “If a hard-core engineering piece comes up, I have the knowledge to at least get the right person and fix it. Once you learn the engineer’s needs, if you focus on the client’s needs, you become the middle man, and as the webmaster, that’s primarily what you are a lot of the time.”
This is where, again, being all things to all people and having excellent project management skills come into play. “It’s being able to juggle the needs and priorities of all your clients so that you’re not making someone a nonpriority when they shouldn’t be,” Hall said. “You’re able to look at the task at hand and see if it’s something that needs to be done immediately, needs to be done in four hours or can be done at the end of the week. You want to have a clear idea of when the work’s going to be done and when you’re going to be able to fix the problem, or at least be able to illustrate the issues at hand.”
Of course, long hours are part of the equation.
“Because of all that juggling, I’m working at night a lot,” Hall said. “It also depends on when the issue comes up — if the site goes down in the late afternoon, you have to get it working. It doesn’t matter if it ruins your evening or weekend.”
Because Chili Interactive assists many clients in designing and administering Web sites, in a typical day, its webmasters will manage projects at different stages of evolution.
“On a week-to-week basis, there’s content that needs updating, there are things that need to be done to the site, whether on the admin side or on the front-end side,” Hall said. “Then there are the more critical sites that are actually launching. They’re usually the focus of the week if the site’s actually launching because it’s switching from the old site to the new one and getting all their admin things worked out. And then we have the new designs, which are more on the design side and the requirement side. Each week, I’m working on clients that launched a while ago, clients that are about to launch and then clients that are in the early stages of their Web sites.”
Chili Interactive seeks to establish clients so they’re well-prepared to run their own Web sites, but this doesn’t always occur.
“We try setting our clients up with content manager systems so they can make a lot of updates themselves, so that they don’t need a full tech person to go in and make easy updates to the site as far as content goes, and then we come in next to help support them on that,” Hall said. “It’s your job to make sure that if the site goes down and something’s not working that you can either solve it yourself or solve it within that group, and it’s quite difficult sometimes because it’s multiple parties all working toward the same goal. As a webmaster, it’s your job to ensure it gets done, whether you’re doing it or someone else is doing it. It’s not as simple as it used to be five or six years ago, when a lot of technologies were in-house.
“You’re required to know more and more. You’re required to know all aspects of both the front-end and back-end pieces, which is really challenging because as technology grows, that does too.”
Hall said he feels the expectations placed on webmasters will only increase, going so far as to say that in the future, the market will articulate a need for a “superwebmaster,” an IT professional who can handle any Web-related need, engineering, design or otherwise.
– Daniel Margolis, email@example.com