Bill Cullifer


Webmaster Certification: A WOW Perspective

How do you create the perfect website if you don't even know where to begin? Any company planning to establish an Internet presence has been on its own when it came to hiring the right person to create or manage a Web site. HR managers and small business owners have been left in the dark about what job functions and skill sets are required. 

An industry survey conducted this year by the World Organization of Webmasters (WOW) showed that, contrary to conventional assumptions, successful Web sites tend not to be managed just by technical or graphics specialists. Rather, their Webmasters play the role of project manager, and are often as consultants. These individuals have a broad understanding of the various technical components of a Web site and, what's of critical importance, they understand how a Web site can support the company's strategic business objectives. They must be familiar with such non-technical, business-related subjects as copyright, customer service, budgeting, security, and vendor contracts. 

"The Webmaster is a management person and therefore a business person. He has to know business," said Dale Harpster, Manager of Communications at U-Haul International, one of the survey respondents. 

The survey also revealed three key areas in which every Webmaster should be knowledgeable: technology, content management, and business management. However, knowing what expertise a Webmaster should have is one thing; measuring whether a specific individual has that expertise is a different matter. A pressing need exists among HR managers and other employers for a way to single out the Webmasters who will succeed. To meet that need, WOW is spearheading development of a certification program for Webmasters that will help employers choose the right person for the job. Prior to the WOW certification program, there has been no objective international standard for measuring the skill level of an individual Web worker. The Web is a very young industry; many Web workers have learned their skills through on-the-job experience and have no formal job-related education. That leaves HR managers working in the dark, where it is easy to make a costly mistake. It is often safer to do nothing at all, which can delay a company's Web development and, as a result, jeopardize its competitive standing. Just when the next generation of Web sites is ready to move beyond "brochureware" and fancy graphics to begin to serve real business needs, delays are occurring because of bottlenecks in the hiring process. 

The WOW certification program is designed to redress this problem. It will establish a universal set of standards on which HR departments can rely, and standards could not come at a better time. Web-related work is gaining recognition as a distinct profession, and it is being compensated accordingly. A recent Computerworld survey found that the average compensation for a Webmaster/Web designer is just over $50,000. A similar 1998 survey by the American Electronics Association showed that Internet professionals may earn significantly more than their counterparts in other high-tech industries. 

The latter survey also illustrated another trend: specialized Web professions are proliferating. The skill sets needed to build a good Web site include layout and graphic design, user interface design, editorial talent, technical architecture and systems integration, various kinds of programming, and systems administration, not to mention strategic business planning, electronic commerce, and marketing. Every company with a Web site must build a team with the right mix of some or all of these specialties. The skills of each prospective team member must be assessed as part of a hiring process. Finally, someone-the Webmaster-must take ultimate responsibility for leading the team. 

To fill these positions, the HR department must have a clear, focused definition of each job function required and a method for measuring the skill sets of individuals in each specialty. Most of all, HR must know what skills the Webmaster needs to be able to pull together the right team for the job. That is what the WOW certification program intends to provide. 

The program will consist of thorough classes in all the skills required by Web managers. Classes will be taught through several institutions of higher learning that are converting their current Web curricula to meet the requirements of the WOW certification program. The program will also be offered through Webmaster University, an online site that will serve professionals for whom classroom attendance classes is inconvenient. Individuals who already have sufficient professional Web experience may bypass classroom time, earning certification by passing a rigorous equivalency test. 

The WOW certification program is divided into two levels. Level 1 standardizes the capabilities of a Webmaster, focusing on "new breed" project management, which has been identified by David Foote, managing partner at Cromwell Foote Partners LLC in Stamford, CT, as the skill in "greatest demand and shortest supply." Foote writes: "[Project management] has today taken on a whole different focus and has been shifted off its classical axis (that is, the big three: scheduling, resource leveling, and budget). Today, it is more about managing complexity and managing a flexible workforce ('flexforce'). [Managing] complexity [requires the PM to coordinate] resources across the enterprise, budgets shifting to the business units-60% of total IT spending on average is now under the business units-and dealing with radically shortened time horizons. So now we have enterprise (or cross-functional) PMs who are like traffic cops, unsnarling traffic jams of hundreds of projects, and, one level down, "new breed" project management personnel who manage things like web projects by blending full-time workers, contractors, independent consultants, job sharers, et al. into project teams. That's the big news. So, the webmaster needs project management skills that are different from the old ones because he/she is increasingly managing a completely different make up of the web project team,...functionally diverse (content, tech infrastructure, etc.), but also labor-force diverse." Level 1 of the WOW Certification program defines the Webmaster as a project manager who speaks the multiple languages of both technology and business, leading the Web team by virtue of his or her broad expertise. 

The curriculum of Level 1 LINK TO LEVEL ONE is based on definitions of job functions and skill sets in the three key areas mentioned above: technical, content management, and business management. These definitions have been developed by a broad coalition of industry and academic experts, and the skill set definitions have been adopted by the U.S. Department of Labor. 

In the technical area, skill sets include such topics as system configuration, communications protocols, performance criteria, operating systems, and proxy servers. Content management includes user-interface design, authoring languages, server-side scripting, multimedia, and graphics. Web business management includes principles of finance, legal issues, project management, and marketing as they apply to Web-related activities. 

Level 2 of the LINK TO LEVEL TWO WOW certification program leads Web professionals to deepen their knowledge and hone their skills in specific subjects. Web workers will use Level 2 certification to demonstrate their ability not only to understand and manage, but to implement specific tasks themselves. 

The goals of the WOW certification program are twofold. First, the program aims to help companies find, evaluate, and hire the best possible Web workers. Second, it will help Web workers further their own professional development. Each goal supports the other. To the extent that a Webmaster can translate his or her company's business goals into a Web strategy, the Webmaster will garner rewards of respect and advancement. Thus the WOW certification program provides a framework in which both Webmaster and employer can succeed together. 

Bill Cullifer
Executive Director