Do You Want a Job as a Web Developer or Webmaster?

Part 1: Drawbacks to Being a Webmaster

How I Became a Web Developer

When I first got the job as Webmaster in the Web group at Netcom, there were many people who were very jealous of me. I had gotten the job because I was a good technical writer and the Web team needed a writer. What they didn't realize was that being a Webmaster is not all Web pages and "glory". I think that Web development is attractive to technical people because it allows them to be creative, and it's attractive to creative people because it allows them to get technical.

But no matter what type of person you are, there's more to being a Webmaster than meets the eye.

Contract Web Development Work

Many Webmasters do their work on a contract basis. This means that you are subject to the whims of your customers. If you don't have any customers you don't have any business. If developing Web pages is your sole means of support this can be somewhat scary. You have to be a good salesperson of yourself to get the jobs you need to stay afloat. While it is true that your skills do speak for themselves, there are many developers out there, so you need to have a compelling reason for your customers to choose you.

Most of the contractors I know thrive on uncertainty. One co-worker didn't have his own place to live. He would crash at his friends' places and work contracts until he had enough money to travel, then he would leave. He wanted to ride on as many different roller coasters as he could, all over the country (and perhaps the world).

But in order to get to that level of flexibility, you have to be very good at what you do, and open to the possibility of not finding work right when you need it. I don't know many developers that want to be as flexible as my co-worker (he worked two or three different jobs for our company), but when the work isn't there, sometimes you have to be.

Understand What Being a Webmaster Means

Being a contract Web designer is a lot of work. Some months, you can have more work than you can handle and other months you might be starving for a simple Web page modification. Before you decide to become a professional, be sure you know all the facts about being a professional Webmaster.

Next page > Dealing with Challenging Customers

Web Develoment Customers are a Part of the Job

Web development customers can make your life interesting. One of the most difficult tasks of a Web designer is to determine what the customer wants, including the colors, layout, and design of the page. The customer often has a very clear vision of what the page should look like, but they are not a Web designer, so it is very hard for them to articulate this desire.

When the Web developer gives them some sample pages to look at, they compare it to their vision and the page comes up short. I have learned to expect the phrase "no, that's not exactly what I'm looking for" when I first show a Web design or series of designs to a customer.

Most customers hire a Web developer because they don't have the knowledge, time, or inclination to develop the Web page themselves. This makes sense, but this also means that they don't know what is and is not possible on the Web. They may come to you asking for a page designed in an exact CMYK (print colors) hue that doesn't display very well on most Web browsers. Or they may want you to create a huge database driven site on a free Web server like GeoCities. It is up to your job as the professional Web developer to educate them as the to possibilities of the Web and explain the limitations.

Then there are the customers who do do some Web development themselves, and know exactly what they want.

Perhaps you work for a company as a Web developer, and someone in Marketing wants you to create a Web page for them. It often is your job to balance the needs of your customer to have a vibrant page, with the needs of the company to have a consistent Web page. For example, at Netcom, the company colors were red and purple.

But there was one marketing customer who hated the color red. Whenever we created a page for her using the corporate colors she hated it. She would then design it herself using greens and yellows - and ask us to put it up. They were nice pages, but not in the Netcom style guide and this would cause friction.

Web Developers Must Be Professional

It is crucial that regardless of the provocation, you as the professional Web developer must stay calm. Remember that in most situations, you have more Web design experience than your customers, that's why they are hiring you.

Next page > Working All Hours

Contract Web Designers Often Set Their Hours

For the most part, contract (and some permanent) Web developers can set their own hours. If you are a self-motivated person, this is great. If you tend to turn on the computer to play Solitaire before you start your day, this can be deadly (If you find yourself thinking "I know I'll win the next game," you should think hard about this).

Web Pages are Always On

The tricky part with developing Web pages comes with the nature of the Web - it is international, and your customers can be too.

Even if your customers are not international, they may want to have their Web page geared towards a different time zone than the one you're in. At Netcom, all press releases were supposed to go up at 5:30am EST. When I worked there, I lived in California, 3 hours behind EST. We often wouldn't receive press releases until 9pm Pacific time, and the PR people would want them up at 5:30am East Coast time. That meant that if I could get the release formated in HTML in 10 minutes (working at home in my pajamas of course), I could go to bed around 9:30pm and get four and a half hours of sleep.

And Web pages never seem to go down during the day. If you're a Webmaster responsible for the server maintenance, you often have to carry a pager and you will get paged -- at two in the morning. And a Web site is a serious thing to most businesses. It is not a pleasant thing to know that the only reason the Vice President knows your name is because the site was off-line for four hours the other day.

Web Developers are Called at All Hours

What it comes down to is that Web pages go down in the middle of the night, and your customers will then call you to fix them, in the middle of the night. As a Web developer, you have to be ready to service your customers whenever they need you to.

Next page > Browsers, computers, monitors, even chairs

Web Design is Different from Print Design

Working on the Web can be very challenging. It's not like designing a magazine. With print work, you know that once the article is layed out and printed, it's not going to look drastically different depending upon who reads it. But with Web pages you may have some customers viewing your pages in screen readers (or just browsing with images turned off), browsers that are 3 and 4 years old, various different operating system platforms, and any number of monitor configurations.

Most Web developers choose a set of platforms, browsers, and color depth to design for, and hope that those not supported are either very few in number or very understanding.

Connections to the Web

The connection you have to the Web can be a big factor in how you get your job done. If you work from home off of a 28.8 modem, as many of the About Guides do, you are limited in what you can see. Many sites that your customers may want to emulate will take hours for you to download. Even having the opposite situation -- a high-speed connection to do your work can be a problem. If you view all your Web pages on a fractional (or even full) T1 line, you won't know what they are like to your dial-up customers. The page that downloads in 2 seconds for you may look beautiful, but your readers on modems won't have stuck around long enough to find out.

Web Developers Must Stay Current

To stay competitive, it is important that Web developers stay up-to-date on the latest Web technologies.

Many companies no longer want a Web developer who only knows HTML. She must also know CGI (Perl being the most common language for that), databases, server maintenance, and backend software packages like ColdFusion or PHP. Working for a company, it can be easy to keep working on maintaining the site and not develop new tools.

And as a contractor, you can easily get caught up in just finding work and then doing it quickly and well and leave no time for keeping up with the business.

Web Developers Risk Repetitive Stress Injuries

As a Web developer, you are typing most of the day. This means that you run the risk of getting repetitive stress syndrome problems. To combat this, I do wrist exercises every day, I have a very expensive ergonomic chair (Herman Miller Aeron Chair), a "bent" Microsoft keyboard, and a trackball mouse. I also use my right hand for mousing on my PC and my left hand for mousing on my Mac, and I still have difficulty with my shoulders and wrists at times.

Next page > Maintenance Can Be Very Boring

Web Design Maintenance Boredom

A very common complaint of beginning Web developers is that they aren't doing anything interesting. With large sites, it can be a full time job just keeping up with the typos, broken links, and changes to existing pages. You end up just maintaining the site while the interesting design work goes to outside vendors who's sole job is to create new Web sites. Those designs are simply handed to you to put up.

At Symantec, where I used to work, my team and I maintained around 15,000 pages of a much larger Web site. For these pages, we receive between 20 and 200 change requests each week. We are not on the company design team, so most of the design that we do consists of making our customers' content fit in the Symantec look and feel. It would be easy to get swamped in the day-to-day fixes and changes to the site, so we make a point of finding projects that benefit the company and force us to look beyond the daily grind.

Being a Web Developer is not all "cake". There is a lot of work involved, ongoing training, and a commitment to both yourself, your customers, and the readers of your Web site. There are some things I wish were different about the job, but when my boss asked me what I would change about my job, I answered that I'm really happy with what I'm doing and my role, and that was the honest truth.

Of course, I had gotten up at 3am that morning to put live 3,000 pages of a new redesign, so perhaps I was tired.

First page > Drawbacks to the Web Developer Position