Web Masters Spinning New Image / As sites soar, job duties have evolved

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Web Masters Spinning New Image / As sites soar, job duties have evolved

Thursday, February 13, 1997 · Page B1 ©1997 San Francisco Chronicle

Web Masters Spinning New Image
As sites soar, job duties have evolved

Julia Angwin, Chronicle Staff Writer

Being a Web master used to mean coming to work on a skateboard, wearing a nose ring and building Web sites in the wee hours of the night while sipping soda and munching pizza.

Today, a Web master is just as likely to come to work in a Ford Taurus and a blue suit. As the number of Web sites has grown from a few thousand to nearly 1 million, everything connected with the Internet has become more professional and commercial. Including the position of Web master.

Some say the title is hardly relevant anymore. ``To me, a Web master is sort of a dying breed,'' said Andrew Fry, president and CEO of Free Range Media, a Seattle Web design firm.

When Web masters first burst onto the scene about two years ago -- a lifetime in Internet years -- they actually built and ran a company's Web site. Today, the job may entail responding to e- mail from customers, fixing technical glitches in a Web site or writing and editing copy for the site.

In what some see as a final blow to the free-spirited profession, there's a movement afoot to set up a national certification program for Web masters.

``In a room full of Web masters, bringing up the issue of certification is about as close to the abortion debate as you can get,'' said Matthew Cutler, president of the Webmaster's Guild, a Cambridge, Mass., organization formed by a group of Web pioneers.

His group opposes national standards for Web masters, but ``We realize that certification is going to come about whether we like it or not,'' Cutler said.

One reason some Web masters shun certification is that there's no consensus about what a Web master actually is. The Webmaster's Guild has come up with about nine jobs that are performed by Web masters.

But not all Web masters perform all those tasks. At Netscape Communications, there is only one Web master who supervises nearly 100 people who run Web sites.

Another Mountain View company, Sun Microsystems, has 18 Web masters who are responsible for the technical care and feeding of the company's internal and external Web sites.

``The term Web master is a form of disinformation,'' said Chris Tacy, president of San Francisco-based Fire Engine Red, which helps companies design and manage Web sites. ``It makes people think it's more simple than it is.''

When the Internet first caught on, Tacy said, ``One person could run a whole Web site. But you can't do that anymore.''

Online employment agencies such as Career Magazine -- www.careermag.com -- and Monster Board -- www.monster.com -- are filled with ads for Web masters with skills as varied as marketing, project management and programming.

Even those advertising for the position admit it's an ill-defined term. USWeb, a Santa Clara-based network of Web site developers, is advertising for a Web master with programming skills to run its Internet and intranet sites.

Nils Sedwick, the company's head of education marketing, admits that ``It's a totally meaningless term without some background. It's like saying, `I'm an artist' without explaining, `I'm a graphic artist, a commercial artist, or I go to the beach and paint pictures.' ''

The term Web master was coined by users of Unix, an operating system that runs many corporate computer networks. In the Unix world, the master suffix is common; for example, the person who manages e-mail is called a postmaster.

Early Web masters used the term as a signature on the digital pages they designed and maintained. And they received all the mail addressed to Web master of the site.

Today, almost every Web site still has a mail address called Web master. But the person who receives the mail is no longer always the same person who designed, built and manages the site.

Take Kristin Morford -- a Web master at InsWeb, an insurance Web site in San Mateo. She responds to e-mail addressed to the site but forwards any technical questions to the 20-person staff of programmers and Web designers.

Although Morford is the site's Web master, her background is in public relations, and her official title is head of public relations for the Web site.

Carolyn Grossman, a former Web master at InsWeb who trained Morford for the postion, rejects the stereotype of the Web master.

``It's important to me that I not sound like a Twenty-something with a nose ring because that's not who Mr. and Mrs. America want to talk to about insurance policies,'' she said.

The newly formed National Association of Webmasters in Sacramento hopes to create a set of exams that qualify professionals to use the title WCP -- Webmaster Certified Professional.

These professionals would be tested in four areas: technical skills, Web security, legal issues and marketing.

``Not that we expect them to be gurus in all components,'' said Bill Cullifer, executive director of the association. Some professionals might specialize in one area.

Cullifer started the organization last month with his friend Ron Kuhnel. The two hope to launch a certification program this year.

But before they can write the exams, they want to find out just who Web masters are. The few surveys available show that most of them are older than 30 and earn between $45,000 and $65,000 per year.

No one knows for sure how many Web masters there are, although Kuhnel believes their numbers may be in the hundreds of thousands.

Webmasters magazine, however, said only 12 percent of its 150,000 readers identify themselves as Web masters.

In fact, the Framingham, Mass.-based magazine rejects the term Web master as an occupational title. ``We look at Web mastering as somewhat more of a metaphorical than an actual activity,'' said Webmasters publisher Lew McCreary.

IBM also shuns the title, giving its Internet specialists titles like security specialist, Java programmer, electronic commerce engineer and enterprise messaging director.

Microsoft came up with its own title -- Internet product specialists -- because the term Web master was not precise enough.

``Our feeling is that (Web master) job functions will become further segmented and further defined and become more similar to titles that already exist,'' said Elizabeth Fox, manager of certification marketing at Microsoft.

Some Web masters (and Web mistresses) agree. Drue Miller, a Web mistress at Vivid Studios in San Francisco, says her title is a relic of the past -- but she still keeps it on her business card.

``I have another title -- creative writing director -- which is probably a more accurate description of what I do,'' she said. ``I hang onto it for nostalgia more than anything else.''


The Webmaster's Guild has come up with a list of nine jobs that a Webmaster might do:

-- Plan the objectives of a Web site.

-- Develop expertise in the site's subject area.

-- Buy the correct hardware for the site.

-- Install the networking equipment to link the site to the Internet.

-- Program the code to build the site.

-- Graphically design the site.

-- Write content for the site.

-- Organize the structure of the site's content.

-- Market the site.

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