Job profile: The job of webmaster has constantly evolved since the 1990s
This feature first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Wow, it’s 2020 already — a year filled with “vision” statements and “hindsight” innuendos. It’s a year of change and forward movement, but most of all it is a year filled with technology and new innovations.
One thing in technology that changes rapidly are names. Names of products, names of roadmaps, even job titles. What we commonly called a database programmer in the past today might be known as a data wrangler, Big Data guru, or a whole host of other options.
One job, in particular, has changed titles so many times it’s hard to keep track. “Webmaster” is the original term or job title that popped into being in the 1990s, but has since metamorphosized countless time into a massive, multi-branched job description that embraces “all things web.”
An evolving job description
In the now distant past, “webmaster” was used to refer to an individual who would update and maintain a web site. This individual would also take care of the server, and sometimes the network that users accessed the server through. Webmasters were responsible for ensuring that websites remained functional, user-friendly, visually pleasing, and up-to-date.
A successful webmaster was expected to work well with others and collaborate successfully with managers, designers, writers, and so forth. A well-rounded webmaster would have had excellent technical skills and a good understanding of creative online marketing.
And right there you can see how an initially simple job description began to evolve, with just three words: creative online marketing. Almost right away, webmasters began to accrue duties beyond the scope of behind-the-scenes maintenance and server-side heavy lifting. The importance of having a flair for sales and online imagery started to branch the job and its description.
As these two roles split, so did the servers that serve the content. A lot of people went to an n-tier infrastructure to serve the websites and the front-end/back-end or database and communications tiers were born. A webmaster could no longer take care of the hardware AND the website, so most of them stopped and the job description branched again.
Now server and system engineers grew from that and webmasters became people who “just take care of the website.” The networks grew at this time and specialized people took care of the large networks and the webmasters didn’t need to be network engineers anymore.
As the years dragged on, we split further and diversified, handing off the “pictures” on the web to UI (user interface) developers, and handing off the code that ran the middle tier and backend database to web developers, who are responsible for code and not “the website.” The combo of these two descriptions became web designer.
Through all of this, the job description “webmaster” never went away. To this day, it remains the person in charge of the overall website and its uptime. The person who used to “do” things now “oversees” them, and the site has turned into a product that the webmaster is responsible for and maintains.
The new webmaster skill set
Overall ownership is something that webmasters are good at and is something that is in high demand with employers. Ownership dictates responsibility and employers want responsible people. Generally speaking, a webmaster needs to prioritize soft skills far above any hard skills that may still be required.
That’s because the tide has shifted, as outlined above, from needing to know all about the server, the network, every web page, and how it all fits together, to mastery of creativity, psychology, and personal interaction. AI and automation are great at optimizing and streamlining established concepts. What organizations need most is creative thinkers to conceive solutions to tomorrow’s problems with relevancy and novelty.
Persuasion is also important. Having a great product, a great platform, or a great concept is one thing, but persuading people to buy into it is a separate and independent skill. Collaboration and the ability to work in a team are also valuable. As projects become increasingly complex and global, effective collaboration is increasingly important.
Adaptability is a soft skill that I have written about before that is also more relevant than it has ever been. A team member who can’t figure out how something works, or who won’t change his or her mind when compromise is called for, is doomed in today’s workforce. The timeless skill (pun intended) of time management is also essential in today’s distraction-filled world.
A webmaster’s day will turn into years in the right spot because a company’s web presence tends to grow over time. You may have started out taking care of a single server, making sure it didn’t run out of resources, and then graduated to the cloud and taking care of between 100 and 200 servers run in n-tier environments. Now, in 2020, a webmaster sits on top of a team.
Companies hire teams of people and the “webmaster” is usually hired to understand and oversee this group of specialists. The webmaster has a broad understanding of all levels of website design, development, and deployment, since webmasters used to function at all those levels; consequently, a good webmaster can tackle problems either directly or through delegation.
Keeping up with the times
The biggest area of webmaster focus, and certainly cause for concern over a knowledge gap, is serverless technology related to running web content or workloads in a cloud environment. This technology has been around since 2014, of course, so there’s been plenty of time for incumbent webmasters and their teams to get up to speed.
Serverless computing is a cloud computing execution model in which the cloud provider runs the server, and dynamically manages the allocation of machine resources. Pricing is based on the actual amount of resources consumed by an application, rather than on pre-purchased units of capacity. It can be a form of utility computing.
Serverless computing can simplify the process of deploying code into production. Scaling, capacity planning, and maintenance operations may be hidden from the developer or operator. Serverless code can be used in conjunction with code deployed in traditional styles, such as microservices. Alternatively, applications can be written to be purely serverless and use no provisioned servers at all.
This should not be confused with computing or networking models that do not require an actual server to function, such as peer-to-peer.
A modern webmaster can take advantage of ANY n-tier level in a serverless environment. He or she can have “just code” running on the cloud and executing anything such as database calls, server calls, and any workload associated with your cloud. For instance, I run AWS Lambda, the AWS serverless environment, for our production website.
Serverless computing promises to further change the webmaster’s role and job duties. By using a serverless infrastructure service such as AWS Lambda, the need to maintain physical infrastructure and systems software goes away, from the developer’s standpoint.
Serverless architectures are highly scalable, deliver high performance, and let you pay only for the resources your application actually consumes. There is a direct, linear relationship between the efficiency of your code and what it costs to run it. The faster it runs, the less you pay.
Training and certification
A good webmaster has some on-the-job skills that are learned. A great webmaster rounds off those skills with training and education. Getting a computer science degree or related business degree is a good place to start, but there’s much more one can do from there.
Take a few developer classes and then throw your entire being into mastering cloud computing, serverless technology, and running micro-services for your users. Learning AWS, Azure, or GCP (Google Cloud Platform) is paramount in this day and age. A webmaster without these skills is falling behind even with a good team in place — if you can’t manage the team, you will fall down.
I highly recommend gathering some cloud certifications and going through the cloud tracks of these major brands. My absolute favorite certification track is the AWS Cloud, with the AWS Certified Solutions Architect being my favorite certification.
The associate-level exam is intended for individuals who perform a solutions architect role and have one or more years of hands-on experience designing available, cost-efficient, fault-tolerant, and scalable distributed systems on AWS. That’s the lengthy blurb but the fact of the matter is that it is a good overall, toe-dipping way to get into AWS’ ecosystem. I highly recommend it.
No matter what you call someone’s job or how you describe it, the webmaster term will be forever ingrained in the lexicon of technology. It will remain in use for however long there is a “web” to be mastered. I know for a fact that this job description will always be my favorite, since it was the first I ever had.